Pianist Jacky Terrasson and His Quartet Heat Things Up at Smoke Jazz and Supper Club

As always, Jacky Terrasson's trio of shows in New York City's Smoke Jazz and Supper Club highlight his catch-all creativity and energy as a performer.
Jacky Terrasson Quartet

The Anglo-French pianist Jacky Terrasson brought his latest quartet to the intimate surroundings of Smoke supper club for a three set, three night engagement this past weekend. A young talent from the start, Jacky gained widespread recognition after winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk competition in 1993 at the age of 27. Now in his 48th year, Terrasson has established himself as a major voice on the piano with his imaginative medleys, where he re-works songs from the American songbook, combining them with more contemporary classics.

For Saturday’s gig, he is joined by his bassist Burniss Travis III, drummer Jonathan Pinson, and percussionist Mauricio Herrera. Terrasson is an in-demand pianist who performs at many festivals as well as prestigious piano showcases around the globe. It’s a special treat to get to see this ebullient artist up close and personal; the superb surrounds of the Smoke supper club, with its outstanding acoustics and room for a Steinway grand, is the perfect venue to catch such a performer.

Terrasson is as energetic and artist as you will find, and it is this joyful energy that makes his live shows so appealing. It is amazing how many kilowatts this slender man can generate when he sets himself at the keyboard. He can be delicate or brash with an attack that is sometimes stabbing or appropriately gentle. Clad in red shoes and striped socks, his feet are constantly in motion, keeping time, setting the pace; sometimes torrid, sometimes languishing. Bassist Travis holds constant eye contact with the pianist, sensing his moves, reacting to the changes and anticipating the breaks in tempo. Drummer Pinson peers watchfully from behind his cymbals; he’s at times propulsive, but often delicately transitioning with whisper accents all according to the direction taken by the leader.

Terrasson starts the set off with a repeating vamp that eventually blossoms into his own percussive version of the Rogers and Hart standard “My Funny Valentine”. He includes brief references to the traditional folk song “Billy Boy”, all the while introducing swinging interludes that send the crowd cheering. Forever the performer, Terrasson eventually morphs the song into a cha-cha with some spectacular pianistic runs before returning to the main theme in his own inimitable way.

On Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”, Terrasson starts the song by using the inside soundboard of the Steinway to create a slowly building, driving beat. The band joins in, all using their instruments percussively, creating a rhythmic backdrop of sound that led into the familiar melody. Terrasson is an extremely animated pianist, part moaning Keith Jarrett and part dancing Jerry Lee Lewis, always kinetic in his approach. Here the pianist discards his jacket, allowing himself more freedom of motion. Everyone in the audience could see the perspiration dampen his shirt rapidly as the enthusiasm oozed out of his pores. The man loves playing, and it shows. As if all of this weren’t enough, he then morphs “Caravan” into the Michael Jackson tune “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough”, much to the audience’s delight.

Terrasson starts the next song moaning along with his slow and sensitive introduction to the classic “You Don’t Know What Love Is” before introducing elements of other songs into the ballad. Pinson is particularly deft at creating a barely perceptible beat with his soft mallets. Burniss has a poignant solo on bass, as Terrasson stabs at a note on his piano in the background creating the clang of a school bell. A brief detour into schmaltz is had as Terrasson introduces the theme to the film “Summer of 42” into his playing before raising the tempo a notch with a funky vamp that had a strutting quality to it, eventually returning to the coda of the original song.

During Terrasson’s live performances, there is always a sense of bearing witness to the music being spontaneously created. Even within the confines of a practiced repertoire, no two versions of the same songs are ever played alike. Terrasson can change direction at any time, with his bandmates having to be prepared to instantly adapt to wherever the leaders imagination takes them.

The Miles Davis song “Nardis”, famously associated with the Bill Evans Trio, is the next selection of the evening. Terrasson noodles on the theme, along the way interjecting snippets of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” — along with whatever else struck his fancy. Once again, as he does so well, he transitions the Davis tune into the syncopated 5/4 beat of the Paul Desmond/Dave Brubeck classic “Take Five” before eventually returning back to the Davis original. “My Favorite Things” forms another brief detour, followed then by a rousing reprise of the Desmond classic at the end.

In true Christmas spirit, Terrasson ends the set with a little taste of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” before leaving the stage as the crowd applauds appreciatively.