George & Geoff HAZELRIGG: Songs We Like – 61740, 40:31 (9/12/17) *****:

(George Hazelrigg: piano/ Geoff Hazelrigg: bass/ John O’Reilly, Jr: drums)

Taste and invention carry the day, rather than nostalgia, in an inspired set of rock-themed charts for a well integrated piano trio. 

The title and cover photo of the Hazelrigg brothers’ debut jazz release, “Songs We Like,” suggests candor and modesty. No vaunting claims or puffery. The back reveals that the songs in question have also been liked by others, for they are nothing less than pop/rock favorites from yesteryear by Led Zeppelin, Sting, Hendrix, Jethro Tull, with two classical tunes thrown in. We are broad-minded here at Audiophile Audition and readily accept that no musical tradition has a monopoly on good songs. However, for the  jazz aficionado, there might be a concern that an important dimension of jazz will be rescinded if the rather single-minded rhythmic notions of Rock’n’roll are overindulged, not to mention all the subtleties of interaction and dynamics. Might they be overwhelmed by bombast or smothered by repetitious boredom?

These concerns vanish within the first ten measures. From the opening track, “Living in the Past,” we are relieved to hear that the trio will operate in that space of consummate rhythmic alertness and musicality, the fully integrated trio concept created by Paul Motion, Elvin Jones, Roy Haynes and smiling Billy Higgins. In spite of the title, there is little feeling of nostalgia to Ian Anderson’s tune. Rather, the vamp and the dazzling brushwork give way to a thoughtful statement of the melody. Only after some pondering does the pianist venture a stunning chord substitution. However, he refuses to say too much; there will be no clutter or raving choruses. He lets the delicate shape of tune play out in the lovely interaction between these three musicians, who communicate the joy of music in general but also something of the wonky theatrical comedy of Jethro Tull. It is an auspicious start to what will be a great record.

The next tune, “Catch a Star” by Colin Hay, is given a heartfelt and simple expression. Shunning bebop harmonies and square chords of rock, it uses spare, third-less chords, ECM inflected phrases, and a generous use of space. The pianist’s solo is classic jazz, though, intricate and full of surprises.  Drummer John O’Reily is a wonder here, playing melodically on the kit, a superb exercise in timbre and dynamic control.  Hendrix’ “If 6 was 9” is treated as a slow blues march. A dark-hued vamp prepares a probing bass solo, after which time is suspended and the pulse goes underground to surface in minimal melodic gestures and thwacks on the kit. There is no plodding or effortful groove; it is nicely-achieved swinging piece by three simpaticos recording in their own home studio.

One is scarcely prepared for the lovely and enigmatic Bartok “Evening in the Country,” which is full of time-signature complexities and the now expected breaks and digressions. This piece immediately inspires the notion that Bartok could be raided for all manner of jazz material. George Hazelrigg pays tribute to the piquant discords of the Bartokian vocabulary with dancing clusters and weird ornaments from the other side of the Danube.

“Ten Years Gone” seems to offer less to work with and accordingly there is a heavier feeling of nostalgia. For 6:46, this gifted trio tries to fight their way through the chord cycle and thin head to find something to say. The piano demonstrates mastery of the ECM piano formulas, but for the only time, the drummer and the bass look on as the piano indulges in an excess of melodic noodling. The big rave up at the end is all high spirits and affirmation. It will be the radio track of the album, but lies at the furthest remove from what the trio does best.

“King of the World” (Walter Becker, Donald Fagen) is played straight and modestly. Geoff Hazelrigg sounds glorious on the bass here as elsewhere, his fat quarter notes and time allow for the elasticity of drum-piano interactions. “Passacaglia” follows, the term just a fancy word for a repeated chord progression supporting a series of melodic inventions. Here it enjoins three- part counterpoint, paying homage to classical technique but universal in its dance-inspired exuberance. “Spirits in the Material World” flirts with pop feel, but this time, the drummer is determined to push it to another level. Starting with a cheerful paradiddle, he never lets up. While the piano and bass swing the earworm melody, the drummer plays across the time with no two measures the same; one melodic idea follows another in a profusion of wit and surprise. It is a captivating 3:34 and it ends, like the first track, on a dime.

Finally, “What is and What Should Never Be” might have propelled a Zeppelin cover band to inflated rhetoric and posturing, but not the Hazelrigg brothers. An arco solo clears the air, and the pianist plays his best bluesy solo, but quietly, as if he needs at all times to pay attention to the drummer’s secret message. In the end, this is not the offering of a tribute band but one of the best pure trio recordings of the year, and rollicking good fun.

Living in the Past
Catch a Star
If 6 Was 9
Evening in the Country (Bartok)
Ten Years Gone
King of the World
Passacaglia (From the Daughters of Zeus) [Urania]
Spirits in the Material World
What is and What Should Never Be

—Fritz Balwit