Usually, I listen to jazz albums as a whole, never as a collection of songs, like you can have with rock albums. So, in order to have rewarding albums, the music needs a strong unity of vision, with all pieces fitting into a coherent whole. And that is tough: either not all pieces are of the same level, or when there is too much variation, the stylistic unity is broken.
With piano albums, the challenge is even stronger than with other instruments. Many pianists fall back on the Bill Evans and Paul Bley kind of improvisations, beautiful by themselves, yet not always of the same listening impact as horns could have. Technically the skills are usually there, but it lacks creativity and raw power, falling back on the romantic impressionism of their role models.
Here are some examples of some musicians who are still in the process of defining their own musical voice, and some who have already achieved it. But the playing is good, with all of them.
Jesse Stacken - Magnolia (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2010) ***½
Mocking Bird", a trumpet duo with Kirk Knuffke, and on Peter Van Huffel's "Like The Rusted Key". He is accompanied here by Eivind Opsvik on bass and Jeff Davis on drums. Stacken's playing starts quite minimalistic, but when the bass and drums join, the intensity increases. The second piece is a little more abstract, with a jumpy theme, lightfooted and fun, with some heavy chords to create contrast with the subtle right hand. "Aquatic House" is intimate and meditative, with great arco playing by Opsvik. "The Whip" is more rooted in the ragtime jazz tradition, and somewhat at odds with the calm contemplative nature of the three following pieces of which "Time Canvas" is without a doubt the most intense, because Stacken creates a subdued atmosphere around silence, without the need to play too many notes, as on the development of "Crow Leaf Frog". The playing is good, but more unity in the styles of the compositions would have generated more power.
John Hébert Trio - Spiritual Lovers (Clean Feed, 2010) ***½
Bernardo Sassetti Trio - Motion (Clean Feed, 2010) ***½
Sophia Domancich & Raphaël Marc - Lilienmund (Sans Bruit, 2010) ***½
Qigang Chen (on "Part 3", and not on "Part 1", as the liner notes claim). She ventures far away from "Washed Away", her recent trio with William Parker and Hamid Drake. You can call this modern classical music at some moments ("Part 1", for instance), or jazz in others ("Part 2", for instance). Her playing is quite accessible with Marc's sampling adding the right level of drama and contrast, but which is more often than not irritating. And that's a shame, because the album has really strong moments.
Carolyn Hume & Paul May - Come To Nothing (Leo Records, 2010) ****
Gravity and Grace". The minimalist romanticism is still omnipresent, but May's percussive power gives the music depth, or adding an environment that is menacing and dark. May limits himself to make screeching sounds on his cymbals, or give sparse hits on his drums, or create some rumbling effects, but with great impact. All improvisations are in the same vein, with the downside that not all pieces manage to get their own identity, but otherwise the album has a fantastic atmospheric unity. Whether it's jazz is of course another, and possibly irrelevant question.
Aki Takase - A Week Went By (PSI, 2010) ****
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