Music Preview: A jazz pianist leads listeners on a journey

For jazz pianists, the trio format affords some of the biggest challenges and rewards. Greg Reitan's long-running trio has a bassist who's a source of strong support yet one who leaves a fair amount of space for the lead voice. Likewise, his drummer does everything from whisper with the brushes on a ballad and fire complex fusillades that are simultaneously rhythmic and melodic on fast numbers.

A Seattle native, 43-year-old Reitan was taken with the jazz of pianist Ahmad Jamal's trio in grade school. "I loved his touch," Reitan enthuses, from his Los Angeles home, "his use of space and the elegance in his playing." Echoes of the Jamal Trio's swinging lyricism can be heard in Reitan's playing today, though filtered through 50 years of subsequent jazz history.

Reitan leads his trio of bassist Jack Daro and drummer Dean Koba at the Norton Simon on Saturday, in the museum's summer music series. They'll play the music of Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Denny Zeitlin in the Simon Theater. From San Francisco, pianist Zeitlin asserts: "Greg has a particularly beautiful pianistic touch and a relaxed intensity to his playing that I think is quite special."

The trio disperses to other pursuits before it convenes, opening the continual possibility of surprising new elements added to the music. "One of the best things we can do," Reitan confirms, "is go on hiatus for awhile. When we get back together, that freshness allows new things to happen. It's like a lab."

While at USC, Reitan studied piano with jazz pianist Terry Trotter. "I was adjunct professor," Trotter relates. "Greg didn't come from the mainstream tradition of jazz piano. He was a combination of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Bill Evans and other contemporary players. But he had an interesting way of combining those different styles into his own. His whole system was geared to assimilating new material and playing very fast — in a good way."

Trotter is gratified with Reitan's post-college trajectory. "Greg took what he had and developed it very well," Trotter says. "And he's slowed down enough that he can play very reflective ballads." The current Reitan album, Post No Bills (Sunnyside) features some lovely, crystalline ballad playing, like on a heart-clutching version of Corea's "Windows." "I've spent a lot of time on my sound and my touch," Reitan says.

He studied composition at USC with the great movie composer David Raksin, among others. As a film and TV writer for a busy New York music firm, Reitan composed hundreds of film cues and worked in the studios with some of the city's most renowned musicians. "I guess I'm old enough," he chuckles, "to be able to say that I'm old enough to remember when we recorded music live."

Composition informs Reitan's playing, adding structural dimension that is sometimes readily apparent and sometimes implied. A listener can concentrate on the pianist's left hand on the up-tempo performance of Victor Young's "Stella By Starlight" on "Post No Bills." The chords pop up like lighted steps on an uncertain path — surprising in their placement but sure in their direction at every moment.

A woman once stepped forward and spoke to Reitan after one of the trio performances. "She said, 'I don't know a lot about music,'" he reports, "but it was very exciting. I heard so many different elements and you took me on a journey!' That's one of the greatest compliments we've ever gotten — it shows she listened."

"They don't need to understand everything we do," Reitan concludes. "After all, this is not science experiment jazz. We want our audiences to have a good time, even though there may be a lot of levers and pulleys at work behind the curtain in the music."

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What: Greg Reitan Trio

Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: Saturday, Aug. 6, 5 p.m.

Contact: (626) 449-6840, www.nortonsimon.org

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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