If there has been a more mellow, melodic and downright charming jazz release in 2002 than Grace, could someone please forward it to me directly? I am already a big fan of the Khaeon label, thanks to a handful of Latin-influenced Jazz sets of the first rank and must confess I was expecting more of the same here. However, despite titles such as “Achados e Perdidos” and “Preludio Para Rita”, this is a very different affair. Different, but equally impressive I’m happy to report.
Jeff Gardner plays piano and David Friesen a futuristic instrument called a Hemage Bass. Don’t worry, it sounds like a normal double bass, whether its lightness of touch is due to technical properties or Friesen’s complete mastery of the thing, I can’t confirm. Given the over-all prowess of the playing, I do suspect the latter to be the case. Both men, like many on the Khaeon payroll, are well-known “unknowns”. That is to say, they have a strong track record and are highly regarded within sections of the jazz world but are hardly instantly recognisable to the general public. That probably won’t change unduly quickly, but jazz fans will not be excused if in future discussions of contemporary pianists and bassists these two don’t feature.
Their combined styles are “in the tradition” with Grace tending towards a dinner-jazz/chamber feel (but without the superficiality of the first and the solemnity of the second). There is a slight South American flavour to some tunes, but it is more Ortiz than Jorge Ben. Gardner has a fondness for little nods to every era of piano playing and Friesen has something of a guitarist’s approach to solos while never losing his grip on the texture and tone that the bass traditionally provides. They inter-act perfectly, and as for harmonic and compositional competence, well, Blanton and Ellington themselves would be proud of the latest jazz-men to follow in their footsteps.
“Esquecendo” opens the set and lays down its core themes. Elegant but fluid modern piano stylings and a high regard for tunefulness are punctuated by the supple and sympathetic bass lines. The two players are partners in a carefully choreographed dance that, unlike so many duo albums, never leaves you wishing for other instruments to fill in the spaces. There are spaces but they are planned for and always appropriate. The music is dignified and a little melancholy but its sheer beauty carries you along with it. I’m sure it is all technically very complex but it doesn’t come across as at all daunting. Very relaxed and relaxing, in fact.
The choice of standards says much about the pair’s preferences. “All the Things You Are” and “My Funny Valentine” are two of the most memorable songs in the cannon and they enjoy themselves exploring the endless possibilities provided by those classics. Yet, I think I prefer the original pieces, particularly Gardner’s .He offers six of these, Friesen two.
Gardner’s “Preludio Para Rita” and “Achados e Perdidos” are my favourites, wonderful reflective studies, chock full of emotion. Evocative and tinged with sadness, they hint at lost loves and memories of younger days. Gardner sounds at times like a cross between a less hectic Don Pullen and the mature work of Al Haig, meaning that though the piano runs can be fast they are never hurried. He also has a stride/ragtime bounce to his work which on a piece like “Blues for Hawk” is cheekily infectious and adds an extra dimension to the generally subdued vibe of the session.
Friesen gets some lengthy solo space (“Change of Heart” for instance) but it is in the dialogues and the shorter intervals that he is most telling. If you want a definition of the right notes in the right place, look no further. Projects such as these often celebrate self-indulgence. Nothing remotely excessive occurs in well over an hour of finely crafted musicianship. These guys know their trade inside out and always know when to stop and when to move on.
This confidence engenders a general calming effect, Grace is a great indoors on a rainy afternoon record, but there are sufficient shifts of tempo and mood to prevent boredom setting in. Gardner is particularly adept and changing tack (sometimes quite dramatically) without losing control of structure or emotional impact. Friesen does have a habit of stepping back from a tune on his lengthier solos, but as they are imposing edifices in themselves, it does not detract from the venture.
Grace is a rare thing—intelligent without sacrificing the more sensual pleasures of the music. Chamber jazz has an arid reputation, often rightly. If you like the introspective tranquility of that format but want some warmth and sentiment as well, this highly competent effort is ideal. Aptly titled, artistically sound, and more welcoming than might be imagined, this is one of the year’s most engaging jazz albums.