Over recent years pianist Jon Mayer has established himself as one of the small group of no nonsense traditionalists who at once keeps the standard jazz songbook healthy and puts his own sublime spin on whatever he plays. That is not as self-evident as it may seem. In an era that paradoxically seeks retrieved (in fact, retrograde) authority as well as stylistic (in truth, stylized) iconoclasm, a polished reverence for the subtle force of cultural traditions is rare. Witness the recent loss of jazz stalwarts who defined just such maturity: Tommy Flanagan, Nick Brignola, Art Farmer, Milt Jackson, Jimmy Rowles... the list has grown far too long too quickly.
Thus, anyone who adores jazz and its indestructible heritage must honor those whose knowledge of its highways and back alleys culminates as personal journeys well crafted. Enter Jon Mayer, a pianist in full maturity who reappeared on the jazz scene just in time to help retard its drift.
Full Circle, one of many splendid albums in Reservoir's "New York Piano Series," shows Mayer in the company of musicians who embody jazz tradition and musical authority wherever they set up shop. Bassist Rufus Reid carries on the legacy of Major Holly, Oscar Pettiford and (ultimately) Jimmy Blanton. He is among that very small band of players who drive a band (of virtually any size) with the most seductive and magisterial touch possible. Listen to his deep, lulling logic on "For All We Know." Mayer's dancing keyboard gait literally floats on top of Reid's spare power. Drummer Victor Lewis is a youthful veteran whose work with Dexter Gordon, Woody Shaw, Stan Getz and Kenny Barron established his strong position among first-call drummers.
Over the past decade, stories about Mayer often cited his hiatus from the scene, but the compelling story on this disc is no longer the "reappearance" of a deeply gifted pianist, but the calm charm of his superior trio. This album does not employ the formula of a "luminary" surrounded by more or less compatible side men; or the equally conventional "newcomer" in the presence of "stars" routine. This is a trio album -- the real thing.
The defining mark of Jon Mayer's musical personality can be found in the way he establishes low-keyed command all across FULL CIRCLE. Mayer plays with and against the energy he is fed. His preference is to tack, like a sailor in a familiar sloop,
A word about such an assertion. The piano trio format is
one of the most musically satisfying because it simultaneously exposes the personalities of three individual players even as it demands cohesion, interplay, and group invention. Bombast sinks any trio just as rigidity or formulaic approaches to material undo it no less. The classic Jamal trios of the
Jon Mayer's trio, although invented for the purpose of this recording session, with a single brief rehearsal to orient its maneuvers, stands up just fine against such measurement.
If there is one song here that signifies how that mutual alertness works (blithely, symbiotically) it is Tom Harrell's "From Now On." Harrell's writing is well-known for its lovely trickiness, an engaging compositional habit of setting a musical challenge worth the effort because its melodic carriage earns the right to be heard (and played) over and over. "From Now On" is no exception to that rule and, when you listen repeatedly to the Mayer trio's skating delicacy on its arch divagations, you hear an interactive cohesion that exemplifies this album's peaceful self-certainty.
A word about Mark and Kayla Feldman's longstanding intelligence as producers. Our moment in jazz history is marked by the absolute need for small labels such as Reservoir Music. Without the dedication and sophisticated good taste of people such as Kayla and Mark Feldman, a great deal of powerful and important jazz would be lost forever... players of the stature of Jon Mayer, Nick Brignola, Hod O'Brien, and Steve Kuhn would be under-recorded or, worse, unrecorded.
It is, then, with special pleasure that I hear what Jon Mayer -- a remarkable and modest but essential contemporary pianist -- achieved on one day in New York with the brilliant Jim Anderson at the recording console.... Rufus Reid and Victor Lewis at the ready. Stunningly, much that is relaxed, natural and quietly splendid got accomplished without fanfare and excess preparation that August day last year.
Full Circle earns your trust the old fashioned way: good chops, superior musicians at ease. Here is an exact instance of that fact. How many albums can you find that end with back to back explorations of nostalgia, as here with J. J. Johnson's nearly
dirge-like "Lament" that gives way to the closing wistful ballad
I am taken with this album because it refuses to protest too much or to wave flags and haul out gangbusters sonic or dramatic effects as if to make an insistent statement. The music exists with the precise force that you would have heard most nights at, for example, Zinno's in the Village (now defunct, alas!) or if you had dropped by early in the morning at Bradley's on University Place just down from Union Square (gone now, too). This is "New York jazz"... you dig? The real deal. No pretense. In the pocket: earnest, at ease, hip.
Jon Mayer lives, of course, in Los Angeles and if you are lucky enough to hear his working West Coast trio -- featuring the exemplary Roy McCurdy on drums with the forcefully gracious Derek Oles on bass -- you know how profound Mayer's playing can be at its utmost. To expect that level of perfection in a studio date is unreasonable. Jon Mayer at his best is a pianist who can comfortably be compared to Tommy Flanagan with no loss on either side of the equation.
For the time being, Full Circle is as good as you might want or need: Jon Mayer on the loose and prowling like the stealthy, polished veteran that he is, a musician with exquisite taste, recorded beautifully, scooting happily under full sail with the friendly gusts of well-chosen partners. "The whole thing went well," Mayer chuckled, a partial truth. In retrospect, we see that the album makes a whole where often we find only parts... which is to say, its emotions are true, the playing is enchanting, and -- for us who depend upon the unlikely intelligence of musical beauty to recast our faith in things -- the album's suave dignity takes us where we want to go.