MAKING A SCENE
Street of Stars
by Jim Hynes
Don’t let the glasses fool you. Just like pianist Bill Evans had that professorial look, pianist Alan Rosenthal does too and just as Evans produced a distinctive piano sound, Rosenthal produces unexpected improvisations, albeit more akin to Monk. Rosenthal is also an astute and versatile composer. He composed the scores for two top musicals performed by Jane Goldberg’s Changing Times Tap Dance Company, and for the modern dance choreographer Victoria Uris of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. He has written articles on both classical music (which you can hear in the deft touch of his playing) and jazz for The Nation, The New York Times, and Fanfare. He also wrote the introduction to the reprint of his brother David’s book, Hard Bop (Oxford University Press). His list of venues and accompanists is equally impressive but let’s turn to the project at hand.
Elbow Grease, like its predecessor, Just Sayin’, is mainstream contemporary jazz with a major focus on piano in different configurations- solo piano, a trio, a septet, and a quartet. These colors bring out the beauty of Rosenthal’s compositions and the interplay between the instruments keeps one engaged throughout these nine tracks, eight written by Rosenthal with a cover of Jerome Kern’s standard, “They Didn’t Believe Me.”
Rosenthal begins solo with the brief “Another Sky” before the quirky and perky “Up the Kazoo” that features this cast – Alan Chaubert (trumpet), Patience Higgins (tenor sax), Scott Reeves (trombone), Bill Ware (vibes), Brian Glassman (bass) and Steve Johns (drums). The latter two are the rhythm section for the trio that graces five of the tracks. On this one, the interplay between the vibes and piano is especially compelling. “Monk Over Marrakesh” is as intriguing as the title suggests, rendered by a quartet comprised of Peter Brainin on soprano sax, John Loehrke (bass), and Steve Johns (drums). That quartet also plays on the nod to Dexter Gordon, “Dextrously,” with Brainin playing tenor.
Rosenthal is not a conventional hard bop player. In fact, it wouldn’t be fair to associate that term with him; he has a singular contemporary style. He’s often understated and navigates his way through melodies with a “I’ll get there eventually” approach that consists of a nimble touch, Monk-like passages played in a non-percussive style and an elegant phrasing that is warm and swinging. Some bluesy tones creep in too while some of his rhythms are fascinating. For example, the deep-southern soulfulness of “Drop Me Here” moves along briskly before he surprisingly introduces Latin elements to the piece. On “Monk over Marrakesh”, his articulation enables him to deploy the Thelonious Monk changes without resorting to mimicry.
The wide range of tempos, moods, and stylistic references make each track stand apart. This is lyrical, highly imaginative, carefully rendered music with just enough grit and soul emblematic of its title. Spread the word, Rosenthal deserves wider recognition.