As the great critic Whitney Balliett once posited, jazz is the “sound of surprise” – in the case of “La Tendresse” the new CD from pianist Spike Wilner(Posi-Tone), the sense of surprise comes from Wilner’s approach to the standards that comprise 2/3rds of the program. Aided and abetted by Hartford native Dezron Douglas (bass) and Joey Saylor (drums), the pianist creates a delightful program. After listening to his solo take on Harold Arlen’s “If I Only Had a Brain“, I jotted down the name of Jaki Byard on my pad. Wilner’s lively left hand and delicate phrasing as well as his trilling manner is ever-so-fine. Scott Joplin’s “Solace” does not stray far from its New Orleans roots, quite reminiscent of bravado piano work of “Jelly Roll” Morton. The rhythm section sounds a touch formal until you pay closer attention to Douglas’s melodic lines and Saylor’s light and, yes, lilting drum work. Wilner’s piano lines shimmer on the Trio’s reading of Duke Ellington’s “Le Sucrier Velours” (from “The Queen’s Suite.”) He displays an active left hand throughout the program and that frees up the bassist to play counter melodies. His take on Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie“commences as a solo piano piece with Wilner concentrating on the melody, then drops into a slow blues shuffle after the rhythm section enters (Saylor is a real spark-plug on this track), coming back to the original melody for a playful close.
Besides “If I Only Had A Brain”, there are several other solo piano pieces and each is as impressive as the other. The Wilner original “Lullaby of the Leaves” is a blues worthy of James P. Johnson, melodic not strident. Wilner’s take on “I’m So Glad We Had This Time Together” (composed by Joe Hamilton for his wife Carol Burnett’s television show) shows a wistful side, staying close to the melody and not forcing a steady rhythm on top of the sweet melody.
The title track that opened the program on a hard-driving, mainstream, romp (actually going a bit “outside” for a few moments), is a somewhat misleading introduction to the CD. It;s the most “modern” sounding music the band plays (that’s not a criticism; it’s an intense piece, at times, played at a level the rest of the songs do not approach.) Yet, by the time you reach the last track, appropriately titled “Happy Ending“, a rip-roaring finish with solos by all 3 musicians, one should be be quite pleased with this musical journey. Spike Wilner’s music goes in multiple directions and it really is a fun journey, one worth repeating many times. To find out more about Spike Wilner, click here - it will take you to his page on the Smalls Jazz Club website.