As if to dispel any doubts about his ability to play straight-ahead jazz, pianist Bobby Lyle concentrated on the traditional during his opening set Tuesday evening at the Biltmore's Grand Avenue Bar.
A facile young pianist whose credits include stints with Sly and the Family Stone, Esther Phillips, Al Jarreau and Bette Midler, Lyle showed that while his wallet benefits from R&B;, his heart belongs to jazz.
Working with a group featuring saxophonist Kirk Whalum, Lyle opened his five-tune set with "Nova," an original composition by the pianist that had drummer Mike Baker and bassist Keven Brandon setting a hot swing pace. Though their volume at times obscured Lyle's efforts, the pianist nonetheless managed to show his considerable abilities in a jazz mode.
A better mode still was John Coltrane's "Giant Steps," this time in 3/4 time. Though Whalum's tenor saxophone solos were choppily phrased, his tone was pure and his melodic statements provided an interesting contrast to the tune's rhythmic foundation. Lyle played with deft precision, with a brief, unaccompanied solo offering respite from the frenetic din of drummer Baker.
Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" was Lyle's tour de force. With technical agility and a deep understanding of, and sensitivity to, the tune, the pianist offered a solid reading of the piece. Only occasionally did he reveal a tendency for overstatement with ornate flourishes that could have been more effective with a more economical approach.
But overstatement was replaced with overkill on the two R&B-based; inclusions. With a relentlessly pounding beat and the traditional twang-thump of the electric bass, both "Night Breeze" and "Tropical," each composed by Lyle, were lesser musical efforts than those of his jazz inclusions. Though the acoustic piano added pleasant timbral quality, the riff-based tunes were unworthy vehicles for the assembled talent.