If Larry Goldings were to be abducted by aliens tomorrow, guaranteeing us that we all would never see him again, his name would be safely enshrined among the greats of jazz keyboard. At the age of 50, he’s achieved a lot just in terms of collaborations. Toy Tunes, his 12th album with his organ trio, is another one for the books. Together with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Bill Stewart, Goldings smoothly grooves through a healthy mix of originals and standards. These are probably the smoothest three guys that can play and still have their jazz qualify as “bop”. Toy Tunes is so easy-going that it may escape your notice entirely if you’re not tuned into what’s happening between all those tapped beats and gently-plucked solos.
If you do pay attention, you are treated to some nice brain worms. “Fagen”, written in honor of one-half of Steely Dan, has a melody that’s almost too simple for jazz. What Bernstein contributes in terms of chordal work helps to keep it interesting, but it wasn’t needed. “Fagen” is the kind of song that can get stuck in your head yet never annoy you. The Bill Stewart bluesy original “Don’t Ever Call Me Again” is just as fun, if not a little more involved harmonically. The old standard “I’m in the Mood for Love” puts a spring in the album’s step while keeping a sharp eye on the melody.
If you like things to be shaken up just a little, Goldings’s trio has you covered with Carla Bley’s “And Now the Queen”. According to Goldings, Bley even let them borrow her original chart. The organ pedal is put to work at the beginning, setting Bernstein up for a tight-rope act where he needs to balance his rubato leads with Stewart’s miscellaneous fills. It isn’t nearly as chaotic as it sounds, a testimony to the trio’s ability to hold things together through a challenging jazz piece. Bernstein’s “Calm” sits in the shadow of Bley’s piece, allowing Goldings to grow the sound from seed at the start. Bernstein’s other piece, “Lullaby for B”, is just as tranquil, if not more so.
The album’s name comes from a Wayne Shorter cover tucked away in the second half. Boiled down to a more chord-based rendition, “Toy Tunes” still manages to become another melodic standout. As far as solos are concerned, the trio’s ability to play off of one another is about what you’d expect from a band that has jammed together for 27 years — which is to say, pretty well.
Toy Tunes ends with a show tune, which feels appropriate since that genre’s entire purpose is to get you humming their tunes for weeks on end. “Maybe” from Annie comes with a gentle swing and light embellishments. Bernstein carries the melody while Goldings is giving a soft, paraphrased version of what he’s supposed to be doing. It is oddly subtle for a Broadway number, but Toy Tunes is pretty subtle as it is. If there were a baby in the middle of the recording studio during these sessions, I would be very surprised if they woke it. Even Stewart’s solos come with a lilt, and that surely counts as a virtue somewhere, somehow.