“…Weiss proves himself a confident composer and arranger in the progressive mainstream.” – Nate Chinen, The New York Times
“Don’t be fooled. He’s only playing a few notes, but boy are they the right ones.” — Neil Tesser, Listen Here!
“We can only hope that Weiss can keep the standard this high for many years to come.”— Duck Baker, JazzTimes
With his new album, Ezra Weiss reaffirms his status as one of the premier young jazz pianists and composers. The Shirley Horn Suite, an admirable addition to the 21st century jazz piano canon, finds the Portland-based musician heightening his sense of elevation and refinement in a trio format with up-and-coming string bassist Corcoran Holt and veteran drummer Steve Williams (who served as Shirley Horn’s drummer for 23 years). The special guest vocalist is Shirley Nanette, a Pacific Northwest jazz legend.
The Shirley Horn Suite, set for release on April 5, 2011 on the Roark Records label, is Weiss’ fifth album. He’s earned wide critical acclaim for his previous CDs: 5 A. M. Strut (2003), Persephone (2005), Get Happy (2007), and Alice in Wonderland (2009).
Now with his piano to the fore, Weiss gives us his affectionate appreciation of Shirley Horn, an unforgettable pianist and singer whose singular way with beautiful melodies, harmonic coloration, and rhythm alterations made her the toast of the jazz world in the 1980s and ’90. Horn released 11 albums on the Verve label before illness cut short her remarkable life in 2005 at age 71.
A musician of discriminating taste, Weiss has long been under the spell Horn wove with her sophisticated, incisive modern piano playing and her glacial-slow, vibrato-less delivery. “She’s one of my heroes,” he said. “She’s been a major influence on how I think about music.” Not long after Horn’s death, Weiss began writing a suite in her honor, even performing parts in a NYC club. World-class drummer Billy Hart, once part of Horn’s trio and heard on several of her recordings, gave him insight on the lady and her music.
The finished Suite is a thing of beauty. Subtlety is crucial to the artistic success of the album. Confident and relaxed, Weiss and his colleagues make the most of touch, space, dynamics, and phrasing. “It was a real challenge,” he remarked, “It took a lot of focus, and emphasized to me how amazingly musical Shirley was.” Focus, combined with firm determination and honest confidence, pays off in dividends. The music has a hushed eloquence, with the trio exploring the terrain of romance while playing at the highest levels of sensitivity and creativity. The jazz standard “Estate,” most famous in Joao Gilberto’s rendition, has a depth of emotional exposition that makes one think of Horn’s two stellar recorded versions; Weiss seems to have internalized the original lyrics of Bruno Brighetti, but favors the light of love over the dark cloud of romantic distress suggested by the words.
Horn loved jazz’s swinging verities, and so does Weiss. The strong tempo of “The Great City,” part of a suite Horn had on her 1984 album The Garden of the Blues, a salute to songwriter Curtis Lewis, gives him the opportunity to draw out feelings with élan. Weiss brings a similar soulfulness to his trio rendition of “Something Happens to Me,” a standard Horn transformed on her 1987 concert album I Thought About You. Horn had a marvelous way with the blues, and Weiss reminds us of that by way of his composition “Blues for Shirley,” where he establishes his own credible rapport with American roots music. To his credit, he never imitates Horn, not here, not anywhere on the album.
“Because so much of Shirley’s repertoire comes from old Broadway tunes,” Weiss said, “I needed to write at least some of the material in that style. This was really challenging because a ‘simple’ tune does not equal ‘easy to write.’” He rises to the occasion so splendidly that his “I Wish I’d Met You” and “Now That You Mention It” sound as if they were jazz standards savored through the decades for their musical attractiveness.
One can imagine Horn—the archetypal jazz musician as singer-—wrapping her smoky one-in-a-million voice around the lyrics Weiss wrote with meticulous yet unfussy care for four originals that benefit from the presence of singer Shirley Nanette. (Weiss first utilized her gifts on his jazz adaptation of Alice in Wonderland.) Nanette’s very much her own woman, no Horn imitator; she offers articulate enunciation and lends nuanced emotion to the tug between wistful and joyous romance in the Weiss ballads “I Wish I’d Met You,” “Shirley Horn’s Sound of Love,” and “May the Most You Wish For.” He noted the former captures “how I wish I’d gotten to meet Shirley” and that his composing of “Sound of Love” was influenced by listening to Horn sing slow bossas, while the last-named song concerns “the comfort and wisdom that Shirley brings to us with songs like ‘Where are You Going?’ and ‘Here’s to Life.’” Beautifully voiced Nanette takes a more assertive approach on his other superlative tune, “Now That You Mention It.”
Weiss’s accompaniment for Nanette is crisp, thoughtful, devoid of weak sentiment, and always in touch with how Horn’s piano was inseparable from her vocal. The trio stirringly performs the Gershwin classic “I Loves You, Porgy” as an instrumental though Nanette would have been perfect on it. Love, in one fashion or another, seems to have been scrutinized by Weiss on all the album tracks.
There is a genuine meeting of minds between Weiss and his friends. The pianist has known Corcoran Holt since they were music students years ago at New York’s Queen College. Holt proves to be a persuasive and sensitive musician who’s always alert to his place in the music. Weiss is fortunate to have drummer Steve Williams on the session; he’s expert at all tempos, with poetry in the colors and textures he achieves through his use of drums and cymbals. Holt and Williams have know each other since Holt was a youngster in Washington, DC and this is their first partnership in the studio.
The pianist said, “I think Shirley helped me enjoy the way time feels at slow tempos. Enjoying the space—the time in between phrases—is another lesson from her. In terms of phrasing, she makes every word count, and I try to hear the words as I play. Everything seems to carry more weight in terms of touch and dynamics. In terms of swing, her emphasis on off-beats has been a big influence on me.”
Weiss has reached the high bar of exquisite musical tributes without sacrificing any of his own shining character. His affection for his subject has drawn out all the artistry that makes him a special pianist.