Christian Jacob, piano – Beautiful Jazz – WilderJazz 1401LP – stereo vinyl, 43:57 ****:
Like many jazz pianists, Christian Jacob was destined for classical music. He studied at the esteemed Paris Conservatory. But like so many others, he was lured by the beacon of jazz (in his case, hearing Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” on the radio and discovering Oscar Peterson). His first break came with Maynard Ferguson’s Big Bop Nouveau. He eventually formed a trio and recorded with many artists, including Flora Purim, Airto Moreira, Randy Brecker Benny Golson and Bill Holman. After fifty recordings, he decided to release a solo piano album.
For his first solo project, Jacob has chosen a collection of jazz standards (with one exception). Performed at the Zipper Concert Hall in Los Angeles, there is both a CD or a completely analog 180-gram vinyl edition (which comes with a card for a free download of the album). There are ten tracks on the vinyl, and the inventive arrangement skills of Jacob are on full display. Side A opens with a cover of Gershwin’s 1927 song, “How Long Has This Been Going On” featured in the Broadway hit, Funny Face. With a variety of renditions over the years (including Coleman Hawkins, Chet Baker, Stan Kenton and Ben Webster), Jacob crystallizes the essence of Gershwin’s meshing of classical and jazz constructs. Following a delicate, ethereal intro, the melody is infused with jazzy chords and heartfelt, emotion flourishes. Jacob’s technical prowess is captivating. Drawing on The Great American Songbook, “That’s All” is rendered in 7/4 signature (not unlike Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance”). The jaunty forceful rhythm provides a fresh take on a familiar piece. In the liner notes, Jacob acknowledges former band mates, Flora Purim and Airto Moreira for their encouragement in the exploration of this tempo. “It Might As Well Be Spring” (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s gem from State Fair) is truly a musical standard. Jacob was inspired by Bill Evans’ version and here operates out of the box in waltz-time. There is a slower transition that is graceful. The complexity of Jacob’s articulation (including a rolling finish) stands out.
Beautiful Jazz is representative of jazz improvisation. But the origins of many jazz pianists are rooted in classical. To that regard, Jacob has chosen the difficult (and in this case, furious) “Etude No. 4 In F# Major” by Igor Stravinsky. Technical exactitude and relentless intensity elevate this performance. It is impossible to enumerate the different covers of “My Romance” (from the play, Jumbo, with musical score by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers). This interpretation, with moody shifting melody progressions is commensurate with iconic masters and their affinity for this number. Moments of solitude and powerful crescendo are intertwined seamlessly.
Side B captures Jacob’s innovative approach to standards on “Surrey With The Fringe On Top”. The quirky, loping opus from Oklahoma is complemented with nuances and improvisational vitality. Jacob combines energetic play and inherent whimsy. The ultimate jazz ballad, “Body And Soul”, is darkly ruminative and elegant. Kurt Weill’s epic ode to melancholy, “September Song” (introduced by actor Walter Huston in the 1938 Broadway play, Knickerbocker Holiday) adheres to the melodic structure but showcases vibrant instrumental emphasis. Undaunted by the demanding Coltrane Changes, Jacob shines on “Giant Steps”. He digs deep in discovering the complicated harmonic structure of one of jazz’s unpredictable composers. The finale, “Till The Clouds Roll By” takes a straightforward composition (by Jerome Kern) and stretches it out in jazzy textures.
Beautiful Jazz was engineered and mixed by Mark Waldrep at AIX Studios. With an assortment of microphones and Nagra IV-S with QGB Adaptor analog recorder, the Hamburg Steinway Model D Grand sounds full and emphatic. It is accessible and skillful.
Side A: How Long Has This Been Going On; That’s All; It Might As Well Be Spring; Stravinsky Etude No. 4 F# Major; My Romance
Side B: Surrey With The Fringe On Top; Body And Soul; September Song; Giant Steps; Till The Clouds Roll By