Jazz CD Reviews

Greg Skaff – 116th & Park – Zoho

With musicians like guitarist Greg Skaff, there is no danger of the organ jazz trio disappearing.

Published on October 9, 2012

Greg Skaff – 116th & Park – Zoho

Greg Skaff – 116th & Park – Zoho ZM 201208, 50:19 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:

(Greg Skaff – electric and acoustic guitar, producer; Pat Bianchi – Hammond B-3 organ (tracks 1-5, 7-10); Ralph Peterson, Jr. – drums (tracks 1-5, 7-10); Paul Nowinski – bass (track 6); Mauro Refosco – percussion (track 6))

There is some irony involved with Greg Skaff and his ongoing organ trio projects. Skaff respects the jazz organ trio format yet his handling of harmonics and his facility to adjust to any changing aspects has positioned him a step above most artists who work within the organ trio template. Thus, fans have come to expect the unexpected, which is once again demonstrated on Skaff’s latest effort (and third on the Zoho label), the 10-track, 50-minute 116th & Park.

The mostly funky bill of fare includes four enticing cover tunes, five delicious Skaff originals and one appetizer from drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. The material moves from the blues-imbued title track to music with a Brazilian bent. The album commences with “Beehive,” an animated sprint which trumpeter Lee Morgan performed (it can be found on Morgan’s 1970 release Live at the Lighthouse), but was penned by Morgan’s then-drummer Harold Mabern. This classic-in-the-making was also memorably remodeled by Dr. Lonnie Smith on his 2010 record Spiral. Skaff’s rendition maintains the spirit of Morgan’s version, and is a fiery performance where Skaff, Hammond organist Pat Bianchi (who fronts his own group) and Peterson tackle the complex tempo and harmonic variations perfectly, and furnish a sense of a sizzling jam session.

Bianchi, who also manages bass duties with foot pedals, is a potent expert on organ. Skaff showcases his virtuosity with fast chord articulations and flawless technique which never sounds repetitive. Peterson hits the groove, of course, but during a vigorous solo he displays why he is in such demand on many recordings.

The threesome brings it down a nudge on Buster Williams’ “Dual Force,” previously done by Cindy Blackman and Freddie Hubbard. But it was a live Bobby Hutcherson reading which caught Skaff’s ear. Here, the trio re-harmonizes the piece, which lets the guitar, drums and organ work individually without a customary harmonic structure. Changes provide alternating undercurrents, but the threesome never loses the all-important groove. Skaff tenders a tribute to another influence on a vivid version of Thelonious Monk’s “Bye-Ya,” which has been translated by many artists, from NRBQ to Steve Lacy. However, it was late night television host Jay Leno who motivated Skaff to learn this intricate number: Skaff heard one-time Leno bandleader Branford Marsalis lead the Tonight Show ensemble into “Bye-Ya,” just before a commercial break. The proceedings slow to a reverie on Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” which has a beautiful melody which has lost none of its charm. Skaff’s nimble touch on the fretboard is matched by Bianchi’s earthy but haunting keyboard accompaniment, and the arrangement is underscored by Peterson’s deft cymbals and brushes.

Skaff’s compositions exhibit his wide-ranging writing skills. The title track honors the East Harlem neighborhood which Skaff has called home for over a decade (he proclaims it is also a pun on the popular cable program “106 and Park”). The mid-tempo tumbler tells a tale, if one listens closely. Through meticulous solo statements, Skaff, Bianchi and Peterson comment on and convey the nuances of the New York City urban environment which prompted this cut. Although East Harlem has a strong Hispanic presence (notably Puerto Rican and Dominican), it is Brazil which impacts some of Skaff’s endeavors. “Lapis” has a Flamenco and Brazilian tint and is an album apex with its prominent melodic lines and the group’s ability to think outside the standard organ trio configuration.

Even more conspicuous, though, is Skaff’s “Tropicalia,” which was inspired by the Tropicalismo music movement but also specifically by Skaff’s perusal of Caetano Veloso’s 2002 autobiography, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil.  Skaff initially offered this on his 2009 outing, East Harlem Skyline. Skaff’s first rendering was fully electric, but the new interpretation emphasizes the Latin American lilt and features a first for Skaff: he uses nylon string acoustic guitar, which he says “gives the song the right flavor.” Skaff was going to do this as a solo guitar venture, but then opted to include bassist Paul Nowinski (Rickie Lee Jones, Pat Martino, others) and percussionist Mauro Refosco (David Byrne, John Lurie and more). Skaff also pulls out his acoustic guitar on Latin-inclined “Serenade to a Surdo,” (the surdo is a large bass drum utilized in many kinds of Brazilian music). This is a light swinger (which paradoxically does not use a surdo) where Bianchi’s organ accentuates soulfulness. The acoustic guitar/organ interplay is another unusual element of Skaff’s atypical stance to the keyboards/guitar/drums layout: near the three-minute mark, Skaff then switches to electric guitar and the tune shifts to a quicker pace and a pulsing pattern. Skaff wisely also incorporates Peterson’s amiable “The Jugular” into the set list. Peterson has a different compositional style, but his expressive creation fits well alongside the rest of the material. “The Jugular”  once again highlights Skaff’s crisp and enthusiastic improvisational skills and gives free rein to Bianchi’s exhilarated soloing. Skaff has fashioned another impressive package with 116th & Park, which swings with abandon, is fun to hear and helps preserve and expand an esteemed jazz tradition, the B-3 organ trio.

TrackList: Beehive; 116th & Park; Dual Force; Lapis; Bye-Ya; Tropicalia; The Jugular; Invocation; Come Sunday; Serenade to a Surdo.

—Doug Simpson




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