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Album Review: Handful of Keys – Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Posted in CD Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on November 25, 2017 by curtjazz

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis: Handful of Keys (Blue Engine Records)

Handful-of-Keys

Handful of Keys, the sixth album released by the JALC label on their own Blue Engine imprint, was recorded over three nights as the prolific orchestra opened their 2016-2017 season, by celebrating a century’s worth of jazz piano. On the recording, there are six pianists, ranging in age from 13-year-old prodigy Joey Alexander to 89-year-old stride master, Dick Hyman, playing compositions by some of the 20th Century’s most outstanding pianist/composers, including Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly and James P. Johnson. In all except one instance, the arrangements were by the pianists or JALC Orchestra members.

This album virtually had “can’t miss” stamped on it, from the beginning. JALC Orchestra is at the top of their game, as are the piano players. And the arrangements often breathed new life into pieces that we have heard many times. Helen Sung’s arrangement of “Four by Five” adds richness to Tyner’s original and the solos by Ms. Sung on piano, Victor Goines on piano and drummer Ali Jackson, are on fire. Walter Blanding’s lush arrangement, ripe with flutes and muted trumpets set a perfect scene for young Mr. Alexander on Evans’ “Very Early”. Joey’s precocious brilliance has been done to death, so I will just say that he was in his customary fine form and the arranger also contributes some nice tenor work. 19-year-old Isaiah J. Thompson, whose name is new to me, floored my twice – first on an epic version of “Lulu’s Back in Town”, that was a virtual history of jazz piano all by itself, with a stellar chart by Vincent Gardner; then on a hard swinging and deeply soulful take on Oscar Peterson’s “Hymn to Freedom”. I have GOT to hear more from Mr. Thompson. Then there is Myra Melford, an avant-garde pianist, with whom I am, again, unfamiliar. She leads a Ted Nash arrangement of her own composition, “The Strawberry”, which Mr. Nash has turned into a Latin infused tour-de-force. Ms. Melford names Andrew Hill, Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor as some of her influences and I hear a bit of all three of those giants in her attack. She is stretching her use of the keyboard to the limits of the boundaries of tradition, laid down by Nash’s arrangement and it is a thrill to listen to. No wonder Wynton takes his only solo of the album on this piece. He fills his horn with expressive growls, trills and cries, equal in unbridled joy, to the arrangement itself.

Rating: 4 ½ out of 5 Stars. Great composers + great arrangements + great pianists = a great album.