Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment: ****
The French-born jazz pianist Christian Jacob has an impressive discography that includes work with Maynard Ferguson, Bill Holman, and Flora Purim, and he has been a member of singer Tierney Sutton’s touring and recording band for nearly 20 years. The sticker on the shrink wrap of the LP version of Beautiful Jazz -- his first solo piano recording -- proclaims, “LP recorded & produced entirely in analog,” so I was surprised to notice that it was engineered and mixed by Mark Waldrep, a firm advocate of digital sound.
Jacob had extensive training in classical piano, but he was bitten by jazz at the age of ten. He continued his classical training, but came to the US in the early ’80s, when he was in his 20s, to study jazz piano at Berklee College of Music. Classical and jazz sometime comingle in his playing. His take on George and Ira Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On” opens with a stately chord progression that contains hints of Debussy. The classical connection is explicit in his interpretation of Stravinsky’s “Etude No.4 in F# Major.” “Even though the music is not jazz,” he writes of the latter, “the spirit of it is.”
Any doubts about Jacob’s ability to swing, however, should be laid to rest by his long bluesy lines on “It Might as Well Be Spring,” where his rich chording and clear melodic lines are both moving and intelligent. His natural feel for the blues comes through on the track and buoys it along. “Body and Soul” once again balances impressionism with spirited improvisation, and Jacob plays at times with great delicacy, creating a powerful sense of dynamics.
“Surrey with the Fringe on Top” goes into, as Jacob writes, “. . . different kinds of sections: some improvised, some written, and sometimes there’s a mix of both.” In the written sections, Jacob sounds at times like a cabaret pianist accompanying a singer (indeed, he has accompanied singer/actress Betty Buckley), but the improvisations are wide-ranging and technically impressive while maintaining an emotional edge and keeping sight of the song’s beauty.
Beautiful Jazz is filled with great moments that repay repeated listens. The quick flurry of notes that opens “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” sets up a beautiful tension that Jacob releases when he plays the melody. The reserved approach to “Body and Soul” is surprising at first, but it falls into place, and Jacob reveals how timeless, and open to new approaches, the tune is. “Giant Steps” is a spirited demonstration of Jacob’s command of difficult harmony on a song that, he notes, throws many musicians off.
Waldrep’s ear for analog is just fine, thank you, and the recording -- made at Los Angeles’ Zipper Concert Hall -- has a detailed, involving sound that pulls you into the interior of the piano. It is an immersive experience, and one I found enjoyable, although I did on occasion wish for a greater sense of the dimensions of the recording space. As I listened, though, I was pulled deeply into the music, impressed by Jacob’s command of the keyboard, his great rhythmic and harmonic sense, and his mixture of respect and affection for tunes he chose.
The vinyl version includes a card for downloading the recording, with three additional tracks that are also included on the CD. My vinyl copy was well pressed and quiet.
. . . Joseph Taylor