Art Hirahara – Noble Path – Posi-Tone PR8074, 63:09 ****:
(Art Hirahara – piano; Dan Aran – drums, percussion; Yoshi Waki – bass)
Pianist Art Hirahara did not start out as a jazz composer and interpreter. During his college years he made progressive music using computers. But two things led him to a desire to play in a jazz combo and converse with like-minded musicians. One was the aspiration to bounce ideas off other music makers and another was listening to Branford Marsalis’s Crazy People Music (1989), the first jazz album Hirahara bought. Being a fellow keyboardist, Hirahara was deeply enticed by Kenny Kirkland’s lyrical energy as well as the quartet’s unity of purpose.
Over the decades, Hirahara has honed his own ability as a melodic performer as well as a group leader who strongly believes in interaction. Those skills can be heard on Hirahara’s first foray on the Posi-Tone label, Noble Path, which also includes drummer/percussionist Dan Aran and bassist Yoshi Waki. Hirahara penned eight of the 12 tracks: the others are two Tin Pan Alley pop tunes and two jazz standards by Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.
There are several different emotional impressions inherent to Hirahara’s mainstream jazz compositions, from jaunty to melancholy, but they all serve Hirahara’s goal to move to a higher level of musical understanding and truth, similar to Buddhist guidelines. The luminous “Stood Down” is one refined example. The arrangement unfolds bit by bit as the trio displays synchronicity: Hirahara’s lower register keyboard lines merge with Aran’s percussive timekeeping and Waki’s conjoined bass. Hirahara’s beatific ballad “Peace Unknown” is even better, a poetic piece which captures the feel of Ennio Morricone’s gentle-natured nostalgia. No surprise the tune was influenced by Morricone’s score for Cinema Paradiso. Hirahara’s “Vast” is a late-night reverie where listeners can almost see the stars sprinkling the infinite evening sky: while Hirahara’s piano is sublime, Aran’s misty percussion adds just the right degree of humidity.
The mid-tempo cuts all share a lively tempo and allow plenty of room for Hirahara to dance across the keys. The opener “I’m OK” recalls some of the classic trio recordings from the 1950s and 1960s with its combination of ensemble togetherness and crisp soloing as well as a responsive melody. The unpredictable “Change Your Look” – Hirahara’s conception of crazy people music – is particularly well constructed with lots of shifts which provide a candid expression of the threesome’s varied rhythmic and harmonic organization.
On previous outings as a member of The Rhythm Section, Hirahara showed a penchant for translating other artists’ works. Here, Hirahara and his trio put some bounce and rebound on Arthur Altman’s well-known “All or Nothing At All,” which evokes Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane, who both recorded versions. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” is also a highlight and the number has become one of the trio’s live favorites. Billy Strayhorn’s enduring “Isfahan” gets an artful rendition sparked by Hirahara’s wily piano playing. The hour-long program wraps up serenely with a reflective rendering of Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” where the trio genuinely communicates the essence of Porter’s romantic sentiments.
1. I’m OK
2. All or Nothing at All
3. Stood Down
4. Ebb and Flow
5. Noble Path
6. Con Alma
7. Peace Unknown
8. Change Your Look
12. Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye
— Doug Simpson