Jazz CD Reviews

Luke Celenza – Back & Forth – Qualità Productions

A confident debut from a young, self-assured pianist.

Published on June 10, 2013

Luke Celenza – Back & Forth – Qualità Productions [self-released] 884501849647, 47:12 ****:

(Luke Celenza – piano; Joshua Crumbly – bass; Jimmy Macbride – drums; Lucas Pino – saxophone)

Meet one of the new faces of jazz. Pianist Luke Celenza turned 21 this spring, and on his self-released debut, Back & Forth, the youthful keyboardist/ composer demonstrates he won’t be self-releasing material much longer: chances are he’ll be picked up by some enterprising jazz label. Celenza has an aptitude for pleasing melodies and straightforward harmonies: his philosophy is to keep things simple and not insert complexity where it is not needed. Celenza explains, “When I write a song, I’m thinking about a groove, trying to be lyrical and melodic.” Which is why listeners won’t find odd time signatures on the 12-track, 47-minute album: most of Celenza’s tunes are written in 4/4 time. Celenza states, “The songs on the record are not trying to be math equations. I’m not trying to make the listener crazy or make it so you have to be a musician to enjoy it.” Celenza further discusses his project during a four-minute, online promotional video.

The all-originals Back & Forth is a friends and family affair.  Luke’s father, Vinny (an avid jazz fan and amateur drummer), acted as executive producer, while Luke’s older brother, Frankie (a guitarist and drummer), produced, recorded and mixed the album. Celenza’s young friends fill out his quartet: the bass chair is held by wunderkind Joshua Crumbly (who has backed several artists, including pianist Fabian Almazan); Jimmy Macbride has the drum seat (as a student he has won ASCAP and Downbeat awards and has studied with Kenny Washington): both Josh and Jim have been friends with Luke since 2008; and up-and-coming tenor saxophonist Lucas Pino rounds out the foursome (he leads his own ensemble, and has toured with Jeremy Siskind). And special thanks in the liner notes go to family friend Michel Camilo, who functioned as informal teacher and mentor from Celenza’s childhood into post-adolescence. While Celenza never sounds like Camilo, Camilo’s spirit can be felt. [See review of new Camilo CD Here.]

Celenza opens with the clear-cut, relatable “Three Point Five,” a post-bop number which features Celenza’s sprightly keyboard, Macbride’s ticking rhythm (he has a deft approach with cymbals), and Crumbly’s conversant, bubbly acoustic bass. Pino slips in close to the end with a likeable contribution. Celenza’s older piece, “River Rhodes,” is somewhat unpredictable and includes Celenza’s unmistakable love for bop sensibilities, emphasized via the quartet’s harmonic bearing, and Pino’s strengthened solo. Celenza also has a memorable solo, and elsewhere clicks in with the bass and drums on the purposeful rhythm. Unlike some developing pianists, Celenza never overextends to validate his virtuosity. Rather, he succeeds by baring his musical voice with lyrical resolve. Celenza proves he’s got a solid sense of groove on the minor-key trio outing, “Blues,” where the moving groove is laced with a nonchalantly funky swing punctuated by impressive piano and bass improvisations.

Celenza’s compositional skills are showcased on some related pieces. Most notable are the planetary numbers which display Celenza’s interest in astronomy and space travel. He has a brief fragment called “Jupiter Interlude,” which operates as a bridge between the straight-ahead “For Charles” (written for bassist Charles Flores, who currently performs in the Michel Camilo Trio) and “Blues.” Then there’s “Jupiter and Mars,” a slyly progressing tune, which crosses from minor to major keys, and is highlighted by Pino’s knowing tenor sax work. Celenza clarifies the tune is also a reference to the Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus viewpoint, which provides “Jupiter and Mars” an altered context. Near the album’s end, there is a linked fast-paced interlude dubbed “Mars,” which halts just as it heats up. Celenza has a similar strategy with the title track. The third cut is the lucid “Back and Forth Prelude,” a two-minute, thematic overview for the main piece. Later in the program, the foursome offers the full track (heightened by brilliant Pino soloing), which is set in a dialogue format: verse-chorus-verse-chorus. The arrangement pushes and pulls back: there’s a constant impression of sustain and release, and the stride ebbs and quickens. Back & Forth concludes with the pellucid ballad treatment, “Back and Forth Reprise,” which echoes the earlier theme used in the prelude. Celenza’s debut has a natural and organic tone: his music remains on an even but not repetitive keel, tethered in tradition but gives a glimpse toward Celenza’s steadfast future. The unpretentious audio fidelity follows suit: the recording is nuanced and detail-oriented, which is particularly evident during quieter moments when plucked bass lines, brushed cymbals and gracefully touched piano keys are in the forefront.

TrackList: Three Point Five; River Rhodes; Back and Forth Prelude; For Charles; Jupiter Interlude; Blues; Jupiter and Mars; 131; Back and Forth; Mudslide; Mars; Back and Forth Reprise.

—Doug Simpson




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