David Leonhardt Trio – Explorations – Big Bang Records BBR9577, 59:35 ****:
(David Leonhardt – piano, arranger, producer; Alvester Garnett – drums; Matthew Parrish – bass, engineer)
Veteran pianist, composer and arranger David Leonhardt has delved into different jazz dimensions over several decades as both a solo artist, and as a performer with Stan Getz, David "Fathead" Newman and numerous others. On previous releases Leonhardt has created albums specifically for children (the Jazz for Kids concerts and records), holidays, tap music projects for dancers, Broadway show tunes, and has moved from mainstream jazz to hard bop.
On his latest effort, Explorations, Leonhardt and his trio demonstrate their multifaceted talents with a program that combines six originals, two jazz standards, and four rearrangements of contemporary pop and rock tunes. The twelve pieces reflect one common theme: Leonhardt’s flair for melody and improvisation.
While the renditions by Elton John, Cream, James Taylor, or Horace Silver may draw initial interest, for repeated listening Leonhardt’s originals prove the most absorbing. The threesome begin the set with Leonhardt’s balladic "Whispers of Contentment Shouts of Joy," which the trio executes with choruses that progressively rise, highlighted by Leonhardt’s block piano chords and singular phrasings, bassist Matthew Parrish’s resplendent bass runs, and drummer Alvester Garnett’s rhythmic shifts. The meditative "Iberian Lament" is a prime and contemplative outlet that illustrates the ease that Leonhardt, Garnett, and Parrish have as players. The satisfying, and well-titled, "Late Night Blues" is a mid-tempo midnight reverie with a resolute cadence delivered in a swinging fashion. The driving and cheerful "Winter Waltz" is an active Yule time number that is anything but cold. The song is reminiscent of Leonhardt’s undertakings geared to introduce contemporary jazz to youngsters, while his graceful and creative expression is suggestive of Vince Guaraldi’s holiday album, A Charlie Brown Christmas, in particular the use of percussive nuances and Leonhardt’s humorous piano lines. As a dissonant contrast, there is "The Dawn Over Morocco," which bears an evocative tone and has a tense characteristic. Leonhardt is a pictorial storyteller, and provides the modal piece a North African feel, abetted when Parrish weaves a bass solo that summons forth a trackless wasteland touched only by the magnificence of a rising sun. Explorations ends with the grooving title track, a fast-paced, bop-oriented closer with an advanced arrangement that finishes in a reflective way.
Leonhardt is no stranger to covering contemporary pop and rock material, and does well with the ones he chose for this occasion. He emphasizes the melodic side of The Beatles’ "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," and a slips in a slight Brazilian flavoring to George Harrison’s otherwise dispirited account of heartache. Leonhardt gives some elan and a snappy vibe to Elton John’s maudlin "Your Song," turning the basic 4/4 tempo into a lightly-swinging waltz. During James Taylor’s "Fire and Rain," the band offers some phrases that stray from the central melody, but otherwise does not deviate far from Taylor’s blueprint. The most fulfilling rendition is a hard-bopping adaptation of Cream’s "Sunshine of Your Love," which Leonhardt completely and energetically revamps into something Eric Clapton fans will find hard to recognize.
Fans will also appreciate Leonhardt’s take on Horace Silver’s expressive ballad "Peace" and Jerome Kern’s Tin Pan Alley hit "Yesterdays." Leonhardt, Garnett, and Parrish do not depart from Silver’s gorgeous aesthetic, staying committed to Silver’s original intentions, and furnish a pleasing and reposed interpretation. The trio gives "Yesterdays" a playful strut, but otherwise contributes a straightforward version.
On Explorations, the David Leonhardt Trio presents an excellent collection of genuinely enjoyable traditional jazz with just enough modern touches to appeal to a broader pop culture audience.
1. Whispers of Contentment, Shouts of Joy
2. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
3. Your Song
4. Iberian Lament
5. Sunshine of Your Love
6. Late Night Blues
7. Winter Waltz
8. Fire and Rain
10. The Dawn Over Morocco
— Doug Simpson