This Batch of Albums Investigates Piano-Led Ensembles


Aruán Ortiz (left), Andrew Cyrille and Mauricio Herrera perform together on Inside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt).

(Photo: Holger Thoss)

Pianist Aruán Ortiz recalls the cacophony of ritmas that pervaded his childhood in Santiago de Cuba on Inside Rhythmic Falls (Intakt 339; 49:22 ***1/2). Joining with drummer Andrew Cyrille and percussionist Mauricio Herrera, Ortiz descends into a deep feeling on these 10 tracks, each one the personalization of some aspect of his musical life. In the two disparate sections of the title cut alone, one hears the firm imprint of Cuba’s musical heritage on Ortiz’s compositional style: the pulse of African-derived beats, the modern vocabulary of classical pianism and the abandon of free improvisation.

Eight years ago, pianist Thollem McDonas and guitarist Nels Cline recorded a lengthy jam at a studio in the hip Gowanus Arts Building in Brooklyn with bassist William Parker sitting in. They released one album from that date, The Gowanus Session (Porter), in 2012, before moving on to additional duo-plus-guest-artist albums. With the release of Gowanus Sessions II (ESP Disk’ 5038; 37:31 ***), the original group offers the second part of that 2012 session. The two extended tracks here speak more to impulse-driven expression than to group cohesion. But propelled by anodic effects, the trio covers all sonic ground, from the subatomic to the otherworldly.

Composer/pianist Brian Marsella’s latest album, Gatos Do Sul (Tzadik 4029; 55:13 ****), got its start with a commission from celebrated composer/producer John Zorn. The group that gives the album its title—made up of woodwinds, violin, percussion and rhythm section—premiered these compositions at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust in 2017. At the time, Marsella was burrowing into popular Brazilian idioms, like choro, finding ways to channel them through his own modern-jazz compositions. His talent for syncretism led to the exhilarating performances on this disc: avant-garde improvisations alternating with charging flute sections on “O Balanço Das Corredeiras” and funny classical allusions on “Fire The Pandeiro Player.” But most noteworthy is Marsella’s nimble writing throughout.

Chicago-based pianist Lara Driscoll developed the tunes that would become her debut, Woven Dreams (Firm Roots; 70:30 ***1/2), as a graduate student in the jazz department at Montréal’s McGill University. She led a trio then and, clearly, came to excel at the format. The album mostly is satisfying straightahead originals with smooth grooves, understated arrangements and meltingly delicious voicings. The standout is Driscoll’s three-part suite Forgiving—Black Dog Skirts Away, inspired by a Fred Hersch composition. Its judicious use of space, subtle shifts in time and complementary feels reveal the depths of Driscoll’s talent as both a player and leader.

On Joie De Vivre (Twin Goat; 51:54 ***), The Eric Lilley Trio moves bracingly through the album’s set of heady swing tunes, charming jazz waltzes and adrenalized bop revelations. Colorado pianist Lilley wrote the nine originals here, a collection as refreshing as its title suggests. And as with many acoustic trios of long association, the group’s repertoire trips easily off its fingers.

Viscerally evocative, the music of Israeli pianist/composer Nuphar Fey, Serenity Island (Hypnote 014; 54:47 ****), utterly captivates. The album comprises 10 impressionistic pieces that take water and other ephemera (imagination, dreams) as their theme; these slippery things serve as apt metaphors for Fey’s artistry itself. Her sparkling, liquid playing lies at the center of each composition as she leads her trio from one mesmeric soundscape to the next; beyond this, the musical circuitry (jazz textures, classical forms, rhythmic perspicacity) remains hidden behind a wash of gorgeous sound. A major accomplishment. DB

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February 2023
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