Not your everyday collection of jazz standards.

Craig Hartley – Books on Tape Vol. II: Standard Edition – self-released, 57:10 [10/7/16] ****:

(Craig Hartley – piano & producer; Carlo De Rosa – bass; Jeremy ‘Bean’ Clemons – drums)

On Craig Hartley’s 2013 self-released trio debut, Books on Tape, Vol. I, the pianist introduced his original compositions, which showed his inventive and individualistic imagination. Hartley has returned with another self-released trio album, Books on Tape, Vol II: Standard Edition, and it is appropriately subtitled. That’s because on his sophomore CD, Hartley spends an hour covering material which has influenced or inspired him over the years. The variety and the way Hartley meshes some of the music together offers a unique experience. Among the six interpretive pieces (plus one new composition) is music by Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Bach, Miles Davis, two former Beatles and more. Hartley is joined by bassist Carlo De Rosa (who was also on Hartley’s first CD) and drummer Jeremy ‘Bean’ Clemons.

Ellington appears twice. A twisting and turning, nearly 11-minute translation of “Caravan” opens the album. Hartley explains in his liner notes his autonomous approach “allow(s) the group to take the song where it collectively feels it should go and (not) rely on a predetermined feel, tempo, or style.” There certainly is a perception of freedom throughout the often fast-paced, complex and knotty number. There are many moments when the essentials of “Caravan” fade out, only to resurface again at unexpected instances. Listeners should take note of Hartley’s use of left-hand ostinato, and De Rosa’s rubato bass solo. The shortest cut is a six-minute run through “Mood Indigo,” which has a playful, whimsical and stride-piano panache. This is a track with aplomb which progresses between traditionalism and modernism, a deft balancing act. Mentioning stride piano, the threesome has some fun and gives some respect to Fats Waller with a nearly eight-minute adaptation of “Jitterbug Waltz.” Hartley, Clemons and De Rosa provide a lighthearted, slightly bluesy texture highlighted by the resilient melody, darting and rhythmic drums and intrepid bass.

There are two so-called “mash-ups,” a term Hartley applies in his liner notes. That’s not really what is going on, but it is interesting to hear how Hartley fuses seemingly unrelated songs into fresh and novel juxtapositions. Up first is “Sinclair,” an 8:32 improvisation of Bach’s “Prelude No. 2 in C Minor” with Miles Davis’ “Solar.” The Bach operates as the foundation and introduction, then the trio effortlessly shifts to a lively rendition of “Solar,” and the three musicians return to the Bach at the conclusion. Notable parts of “Sinclair” include Hartley’s two-handed chord clusters and single-note runs, as well as De Rosa’s memorable bass solo. The longest track is the almost 12-minute “Imagine Peace Pipe,” an arrangement which skillfully connects the dots between John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece.” Hartley states the two tunes complement each other because they share “a sense of calm hope that describes a utopian existence of where we’d like to be.” The lightly melancholic themes from both compositions are immediately recognizable, and the way the trio combines Lennon with Evans creates the impression that the arrangement was both organic and instinctive. There is also a forlorn acuity to McCartney’s obscure “Junk,” from McCartney’s 1970 debut solo LP. It may not be a famous or even remembered by most McCartney enthusiasts, but Hartley lifts “Junk” into the makings of a jazz standard, complete with beautiful melodic lines, sensitivity and a meditative mood. “Junk” is easily one of the best things on Books on Tape Vol. II: Standard Edition. Hartley finishes his CD with his own composition, the circular solo piano outing, “Just Wait,” which centers on a middle C. Hartley says, “I used C as a home base to remind the listener that no matter what is happening in the piece, there is always a stable and comforting core.” The nearly seven-minute solo jaunt has an elliptical distinction with a touch of dissonance, intensity and controlled expansion. Books on Tape Vol. II: Standard Edition probably fell under the radar of most jazz buyers during the latter half of 2016, but it is worth finding. Can’t wait for volume three.

TrackList: Caravan; Jitterbug Waltz; Sinclair (Prelude No. 2 in C Minor + Solar); Junk; Mood Indigo; Imagine Peace Piece; Just Wait

—Doug Simpson