Craig Hartley – Books on Tape, Vol. 1 – Self-released [orig. issued by Skidoo], 66:08 [9/3/13] ****:
(Craig Hartley – piano; Carlo De Rosa – bass; Henry Cole – drums; Fabio Morgera – trumpet (tracks 4, 9); Dida Pelled – vocals (track 6))
Some things never seem to grow stale or out of style: jazz trios, for example. There’s something about piano, bass and drums which always gels, no matter how many times the format is undertaken. And if an artist has some stories or characters to provide some context: even better. That brings us to pianist Craig Hartley’s debut as a leader, the 66-minute, nine-track album, Books on Tape, Vol. 1 (which can be inexpensively digitally streamed in full here). Don’t get taken in by the do-it-yourself, ‘80s-era front cover artwork: this is no handmade mixed tape from the age of the Walkman. Hartley’s music is straightforward jazz which explores original post-bop, cover material from the Great American Songbook, and classic pop song craft.
Hartley is not well known but he’s a solid student of jazz and a professional sideman. Hartley studied at the Manhattan School of Music, attended the New School in New York City and the Hartt School of Music in Hartford (now the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz), where he was taught by stalwarts such as the late Jackie McLean, Joe Chambers, and Andy Laverne. Hartley has performed or recorded with Anthony Braxton, Eddie Henderson, Steve Slagle, Claudio Roditi, and others. Hartley states he waited until he was 31 to record his first solo project because he wanted to deliver a cohesive and mature account of his musical vision. The result is a masterful affirmation to Hartley’s inspirations and talents. Hartley’s rhythm section comprises Carlo De Rosa (the New York-based bassist has worked with Ravi Coltrane, John Faddis and more) and drummer Henry Cole (his stints involve Eric Reed and Miguel Zenón). Guests include trumpeter Fabio Morgera (from Naples, he’s now a Big Apple jazz mainstay) and vocalist Dida Pelled.
Hartley raffishly opens with the no-holds-barred “Dial 411,” a fast and furious tribute to pianist/educator Gary Dial. Hartley enthuses in his liner notes that Dial “introduced me to a variety of musical concepts, now vital to how I think about and write music.” “Dial 411” began as a course assignment for one of Dial’s lessons. This speedy excursion flies past, with Cole and De Rosa laying out a propulsive-paced groove while Hartley runs the keyboard in a flurry. The class must have been studying Oscar Peterson or someone similar: this tune certainly has a Peterson-like pedigree. The mid-tempo swinger “Froghollow” nods to another instructor, the aforementioned McLean, as well as trombonist Steve Davis, a Hartt alum who led a band Hartley was in. The sweetly swinging “Froghollow” is titled after the Hartford neighborhood where Davis and his group had weekly gigs, and where Hartley learned what he could from bandstand visitors such as Eddie Henderson and Jimmy Greene. Elsewhere, Hartley reveals how others have stimulated his playing and creativity. The knotty “Why Not” hints to Hartley’s on-stage experiences with Braxton and bassist Mario Pavane. Both are adventurous artists, and that is reflected in this multi-hued number, which incorporates a challenging time signature and various changes, and features trumpeter Fabio Morgera (Hartley was in Morgera’s ensemble: the trumpeter also produced Hartley’s session). Morgera supplies supple shadings (he prefers the horn’s middle range, which adds a rich emotional quality), and showcases his impeccable technique. Morgera is also on the closer, an alternate version of Hartley’s melodic mover “Just for Me.” There is also a trio translation, which accentuates the conceptual melody, which is borrowed from Bach’s French Suite No. 5 in G Major.
Hartley’s academic years are also illustrated on a couple of cuts. The nostalgic title track sways from melancholy to optimistic, and was written as a memento to the days when Hartley sneaked into the Yale University’s practice rooms and would perform for hours, surrounded by the sounds of classical musicians, vocalists, and varied other music pupils. Over nearly nine minutes, the trio coalesces beautifully as one unit, with memorable solos from Hartley and De Rosa. There is an aptly percolating and percussive mannerism to “K2?,” named after a small coffee shop Hartley frequented during his college term. There is a series of playful chord alterations which portray the eclectic assortment of customers: Hartley’s progressing, single-note tumbles evoke both whimsical and dramatic characterizations. A vibrant bass improvisation and intricate bass/drum interaction provide another layer to this narrative which bursts with auditory anecdotes.
Hartley exhibits his affection for the Great American Songbook with two pieces. First, Hartley does a picturesque rendition of Victor Young and Ned Washington’s standard, “My Foolish Heart,” which commences with a first-rate solo piano introduction, and then the arrangement gains momentum when Cole and De Rosa enter with a swinging cadence. There are dozens and dozens of adaptations of this classic, but the melodic development of this chestnut never gets old. Hartley tries his hand at composing a piece reminiscent of the Great American Songbook with his splendid ballad, “I Should Love You More,” highlighted by singer Dida Pelled. While the lyrics are a pastiche which gestures to previous hits by Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael or Rodgers-Hart, it’s a strong indication Hartley should continue to put pen to paper and extend his poetic and textual frame of mind. And hopefully we’ll hear more from Pelled: she’s one to keep an ear open for. The recording (which came out on the Italian Skidoo label in 2012 and was reissued this year stateside with new artwork) sounds great: the engineering, mixing and mastering offer superb fidelity which emphasizes the band’s harmonious synergy and energy, and Harley’s built-in lyrical approach.
TrackList: Dial 411; My Foolish Heart; Books on Tape; Why Not; K2?; I Should Love You More; Just for Me; Froghollow; Just for Me (Yet).