Monday, December 5, 2011

CD of the Week - "Joan Stiles w/ Joel Frahm & Matt Wilson: Three Musicians"

CD of the Week
Joan Stiles, Joel Frahm & Matt Wilson: "Three Musicians" (Oo-Bla-Dee) 2011

Rating: **** (musical performance & sonic quality)

Produced by Joan Stiles & David Berger
Recorded by Mike Marciano @ Systems Two (Brooklyn, NY)
Mixed by Alex Venguer
Mastered by Oscar Zambrano
Collage Art: Joan Stiles
Graphic Design: Joan Stiles & Samantha Berry
Total Time 51:36

Pianist/arranger Joan Stiles displays her improvisational prowess on "Three Musicians," in an unusual bass-less trio format with saxophonist Joel Frahm (who plays tenor on all tracks, except "You Don't Know What Love Is," when he uses the soprano sax) & drummer Matt Wilson. Released in digipak cover format on Stiles's own Oo-Bla-Dee label, the CD offers adventurous versions of standards and two Stiles' originals: "Bebopocity" (titled after "Boplicity") and "West End Boogie." Achieving a special level of interaction in surprising arrangements carefully prepared by the pianist, they seem to float on two Thelonious Monk's gems, "Introspection" and "Nutty". Other highlights: Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky To Be Me" (maybe the best take I've heard since the one by Bill Evans and Tony Bennett), and two piano/tenor duets on masterpieces written by Billy Strayhorn (the haunting ballad "Blood Count") and Mary Lou Williams ("O.W."). The official CD release show happens tonight, Dec. 5, at The Jazz Gallery in New York City.
Pianist Joan Stiles's first two CDs -- "Love Call" (Zoho, 2004) and "Hurly-Burly" (Oo-Bla-Dee, 2007) -- showcased Stiles the resourceful and inventive arranger for octet and sextet. Her new album, "Three Musicians," reveals the pianist as a fearless improviser who combines harmonic gifts and rhythmic acuity with a pleasingly sharp sense of humor.

"Three Musicians" is a consistently inspired recording that finds Stiles and company letting loose on a wide range of modern-minded material with both serious musicianship and ardent playfulness. And the absence of a bass player allows the leader's piano to cover not only the low-end notes that are normal bass territory but also the regular harmonic and melodic responsibilities that one expects from a pianist.

Each track on "Three Musicians" -- whose title is drawn from the similarly-named Pablo Picasso Cubist masterpiece and whose cover boasts a remarkable Picasso homage-collage by Stiles herself -- brings its own special reward. "In the Sunshine of My Funny Valentine's Love" is a beguiling blend of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" and Richard Rodgers's "My Funny Valentine" with a Bach fugue in there as well. Another inspired medley pairs the Depression-era standard "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" with the Beatles' "Can't Buy Me Love."

For powerhouse swing, there's Stiles's Gillespie/Dameron-inspired "Bebopicity," Mary Lou Williams's minor blues "O.W." (she's been championing Williams's music for over a decade), and Stiles's odd-meter romp, "West End Boogie" ("Never want to lose that blues and swing," she says of her work). On the quieter side, the trio presents Bernstein's "Lucky to Be Me" and Strayhorn's poignant "Blood Count."

Throughout, Frahm and Wilson prove to be the perfect partners, interacting with creative fire as they mix and match with the leader and bring her conceptions to life. "Matt and Joel have a tremendous sense of openness and sensitivity," says Stiles. "They really know how to listen and if one of us starts changing it up, next thing you know we're in a different groove. They play with attention to dynamics and color and are extremely intuitive."

The journey that led Stiles to "Three Musicians" started in Brooklyn, where she was born and raised. She gravitated to the piano in her grandmother's apartment, picking out TV commercial themes by ear; in her teens she performed as a singer/songwriter and rock keyboardist. Classical studies were next, followed by jazz, which was her focus when she earned an M.M. degree in 1986 from the Manhattan School of Music, where she now teaches.

"Love Call," her ambitious debut CD, was a top 10 JazzWeek airplay staple as was her second recording, "Hurly-Burly." In 2008 she was honored with an hour-long profile on WBGO's "Jazz from the Archives," and last year she joined the esteemed roster of pianists who have appeared on Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz show.

Stiles's vital work has found plenty of admirers, among them the superlative pianist-composer-singer Dave Frishberg. "She writes and plays brilliantly, with great respect for melody and clarity," he has said. "She is an authentic original."

Doug Ramsey has extolled her sense of "adventure, daring, exuberance and wit" and Ted Panken, in his four-star DownBeat review of "Hurly-Burly," wrote that "Joan Stiles possesses the chops, craft, imagination, wit and sophistication to be mentioned in a conversation with the most distinguished descendants of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Mary Lou Williams."

"Three Musicians" is sure to enhance her growing reputation as a pianist, composer/arranger, and leader of note. Joan Stiles will be presenting a CD release show with Donny McCaslin (Joel Frahm will be in Europe) and Matt Wilson tonight at the Jazz Gallery (290 Hudson Street, NYC).
(CD liner pic by Jeffrey Glick)

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