Pianist Ran Blake Takes Standards to the Next Level

Howard Reich is jazz critic at the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company

* * * * RAN BLAKE TRIO “Sonic Temples” GM Recordings

Original voices are so hard to come by in jazz pianism that a two-CD set such as this amounts to a signal event. Although this independent release is unlikely to make a splash in the marketplace, “Sonic Temples” has nothing to do with commerce and everything to do with art. Playing mostly standards, Blake does nothing less than radically reinvent tunes such as “Tangerine,” “Nature Boy” and “I Can’t Get Started.” To say that he alters the harmonies of “Black Coffee” or brings interesting colors to “Stormy Weather” would be like contending that Michelangelo did a nice touch-up job on the Sistine Chapel. These are major reexaminations of tunes that rarely have been redefined to this extent. Yet because Blake unfolds this work in a jazz trio setting, with brothers Ed and George Schuller as his nimble bassist and percussionist, even his most outlandish experiments prove disarming. Ultimately, “Sonic Temples” stands as a major achievement from a singular pianist and his adroit partners.

* * * * THE CONGA KINGS “Jazz Descargas” Chesky


Any recording that features congueros Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Candido Camero and Giovanni Hidalgo has a great deal going for it. Add trombonist Jimmy Bosch, baritone saxophonist Mario Rivera and several comparably accomplished reed and brass players in the Afro-Caribbean tradition, and you have the makings of an unusually dynamic recording. Although this glorious CD draws deeply on the conventions of the descarga , or Afro-Cuban jam session, it also exudes a refreshingly contemporary spirit and style. By merging past and present, the Conga Kings underscore the perpetual vitality of works such as “Un Poco Loco” with conga beats punctuating reed and brass riffs; “Tin Tin Deo,” featuring a searing trumpet solo by “Chocolate” Armenteros and pulsating accompaniment from the congueros; and “A Night in Tunisia,” with reedist Rivera spinning an alternative melody almost as appealing as the original. When all of these players are going full tilt, they create a viscerally exciting sound that has few equals in acoustic jazz.

* * * 1/2 ETTA JAMES “Blue Gardenia” Private Music

Listeners tend to associate Etta James with R&B; classics of the 1950s and ‘60s, but she proves a hauntingly effective singer of jazz ballads on every track of “Blue Gardenia.” Granted, her jazz singing may be an acquired taste, in that it doesn’t offer the voluptuous timbre of a Sarah Vaughan or the high-flying virtuosity of an Ella Fitzgerald. Instead, James’ lean style and unvarnished tone recall the gritty vocals of Carmen McRae, the unadorned lines of Abbey Lincoln and the unflinching honesty of Nina Simone. For those who appreciate a singer more interested in interpretive truth than surface beauty, James’ heartbreaking reading of “This Bitter Earth,” gravelly vocals on “He’s Funny That Way” and deeply introspective rendition of “In My Solitude” will prove revelatory. Here is a singer who understands the meaning of a lyric and infuses every syllable with meaning and purpose.

* * * 1/2 MIKE JONES “Stretches Out” Chiaroscuro Jazz

Even if pianist Mike Jones provided nothing but the keyboard virtuosity for which he is developing a national reputation, he would be well worth hearing. But Jones brings much more to this tour de force recording, which places him in a league with such superior solo pianists as Dick Hyman and Dave McKenna. Like them, Jones approaches the keyboard as if it were a jazz band, simultaneously unfurling walking bass lines, exquisite inner voices and running top notes that would seem to require four hands rather than two. Better yet, the beauty of Jones’ touch, the wit of his phrasing and the intelligence of his improvisations ennoble such standards as “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Stars Fell on Alabama.” When Jones plays a melody as written, you practically can hear the lyrics; when he improvises freely on it, you wonder why the composer didn’t think of these riffs. “Stretches Out” represents an aural feast. *