Alan Broadbent has been so busy, for so many years, doing so many different things, that it can be easy to overlook his remarkable skills as a jazz pianist. That’s not to minimize his versatility. The New Zealand native has, after all, written charts for the Woody Herman band, performed with Nelson Riddle, Henry Mancini and others, and orchestrated music for such singers as Mel Torme, Michael Feinstein, Natalie Cole and Diana Krall, winning a couple of Grammys along the way.
That’s a pretty impressive resume, but the most engaging setting in which to experience the inner clarity of Broadbent’s music may be his piano trio. On Wednesday at Spazio in Sherman Oaks, working with the superb backing of bassist Putter Smith and drummer Kendall Kaye, he played with a focused intensity belying the standard wisdom that one can’t generate creative jazz in a supper club.
Broadbent’s program embraced bebop classics as well as entries from the Great American Songbook. In each case, the melodies were rendered with a composer’s understanding of the interplay between tone, phrasing and swing. But it was even more fascinating to hear what happened after the tunes moved into the improvisational passages.
His solo on the film classic “Laura,” for example, began with a cool, arching, single note line recalling such acknowledged Broadbent influences as Tommy Flanagan and Wynton Kelly. As the improvisation continued, the melody expanded into thirds, then into full block chords, building intensity as it progressed.
Other solos surfaced with invented melodies countering the original tunes -- the sort of spontaneous composition that reaches well beyond the more common jazz practice of relying on the fast-paced execution of scales, arpeggios and riffs.
The continuous high quality of his playing, in fact, was a perfect example of the jazz world’s paraphrase of a definitive comedian’s line, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” The jazz variation, as typified by Broadbent, notes that: “Technique is easy; melody is hard.”