It’s been a bumpy road for jazz pianist Peter Delano.
As Ira Gitler explains in the liner notes to For Dewey, Delano’s newest release, the pianist was something of a child jazz prodigy who had recorded two critically-acclaimed albums before the age of 17 and earned the praise of Gary Bartz, Michael Brecker, and Lewis Nash, to name just a few. As is the penchant among jazz critics, Delano’s name was being mentioned as a potential heir to the throne of jazz gods like Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner. Everything looked promising for Delano.
Then, the bumps—both self-imposed and forced—began.
The music on For Dewey, Delano’s third official release, was actually recorded in the mid-‘90s and then shelved when the teenage Delano decided to forego touring and enter Columbia University. Originally, there was a plan to release the album under a different title following Delano’s graduation from college and resumption of touring. But a debilitating back injury resulting in the paralysis of Delano’s left foot and emergency spinal surgery put Delano’s professional career on hold indefinitely. In 2007, after Dewey Redman’s death and a long physical and emotional recovery period, Delano was back at the piano and ready to continue where he left off some 12 years earlier. Thankfully, Sunnyside saw fit to finally release these recordings under the reworked title For Dewey, a tribute to tenor saxophone legend Redman, who appears on three of the album’s eight tunes.
Despite being recorded over a decade ago, it’s hard not to compare For Dewey to the slew of albums recorded by young jazz pianists over the last few years, including those by Jason Moran, Marco Benevento, and Aaron Parks. Like those keyboardists, Delano was raised on a steady diet of rock, pop, and hip-hop. However, unlike the aforementioned group, Delano is the least likely to wear his pop sensibilities on his sleeve. On For Dewey, Delano’s playing shows stricter adherence to the jazz tradition than that of his peers. This is by no means bad. On the contrary, Delano leaves the movie-music interludes, electronic flourishes, and jammy vamps to others and, instead, dives headfirst into relatively succinct post-bop compositions (five of which are his own), expanding and exploring harmony within each song’s framework.
The opening tune, “Zoning”, begins with bassist Doug Weiss repeating a one-bar groove over which Delano layers subtle ascending and descending harmonies that jut in and out of Redman’s sinewy saxophone lead. Drummer Anders Hentze’s stick work here is formidable, and his off-beat accents are what give the song the Latin flair that makes it so intoxicating.
Other highlights include “Inner Limits”, an original composition, and “Everytime We Say Goodbye”, the Cole Porter standard. These songs are the stage on which Delano is his most virtuosic. On “Inner Limits”, you can feel the electricity coming from Delano’s right hand as he burns scale upon scale over meaty left-hand chords. On the introduction to “Everytime We Say Goodbye”, it sounds like Delano is simultaneously playing with his left hand both the melody and a harmony that dances playfully in and out of dissonance around the melody. Delano’s soloing, on these two songs in particular, displays a maturity beyond his years, with an economy and immediacy that is somewhat lacking in the music of his “peers”. Perhaps it’s simply that For Dewey was recorded over a decade ago (before rock became fully integrated into the jazz idiom in the Mehldau-esque manner we find today) and that Delano’s pop influence and musical introspection hadn’t fully taken root yet, but Delano’s playing is experimental without sacrificing the integrity of the tune.
Unfortunately, the other trio songs on the album aren’t as immediate. On “For All We Know”, a Fred Coots and Samuel Lewis composition, and “Summer Song”, a Delano original, the three musicians never quite gel with one another, leaving the solos sounding bloated and unanchored.
While, in general, Delano displays stellar keyboard work throughout, the real treat on For Dewey is the man for whom the album is named. Redman’s playing is reminiscent of Pharaoh Sanders at his most accessible, with a beefy tone that echoes a young Sonny Rollins. “Zoning” and “Too Long to Wait” in particular seem to be a foreshadowing of Kenny Garrett’s recent career-defining work with Sanders. These songs steamroll ahead, always threatening to veer out of control, never becoming banal. It’s clear that Redman makes the entire band better, more attuned to one another’s playing. It’s a shame that Redman doesn’t appear on more tracks here.
For Dewey is a welcome addition to Peter Delano’s small but accomplished discography. Given his performance on this album and his extended absence from music, Delano is certainly a pianist to watch out for in the coming years. If he continues to build upon For Dewey, Delano will be at the top of one of the most exciting cadres of young pianists jazz has known.