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Want a good look into the soul of a group of jazz musicians? Ask them to play a standard. No matter how much technique players have at their disposal, how much harmonic theory is under their fingers, how intense their energy or how clever the formal tricks whittled into their original compositions, playing a standard is like swallowing truth serum. New or complex material can mask weaknesses, while the familiarity of a tune like "Body and Soul" makes it a more transparent test of fundamental musicianship. If you can't improvise with true melodic and harmonic integrity, if you can't swing, if you can't shape a performance with narrative cohesion, spontaneity and an authoritative command of the vernacular, a standard will set the record straight after only a few choruses. There is no place to hide.
Still, a program of standards runs the risk of atrophying into nostalgia, and the ghosts of the giants have little patience for musicians whose greatest talent is a gift for regurgitating their record collections. To play "Body and Soul" is to step onto the same stage as nearly every important jazz musician in history, from Louis Armstrong on down. So there it is. The dilemma: How do you honor the pantheon in this repertoire but also, as Ezra Pound put the modernist credo, "make it new"?
The brilliant Chicago trio of pianist Mike Kocour, bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer has come up with a compelling yet subtle answer. Eschewing trendy post-modern gimmicks and self-consciously brainy deconstruction - you know, Porter in 7/8 time or Berlin re-harmonized into a fog of abstraction - the trio approaches these nine tunes with poise, taste and a refreshingly straight forward attitude. The grooves are as strong as new rope; the improvisations and interplay are full of wit, surprise and individualized expression; the ballads caress the heart like poetry; and the music radiates such joyous enthusiasm that you fall in love with this repertoire and tradition all over again. "We wanted to avoid the temptation of trying to be different," says Kocour.
The chemistry is no surprise given the players' shared history. All were longtime members of Chicago's jazz elite until Kocour, whose resume includes work with James Moody, Benny Golson and Eddie Harris, left town in summer 2004 to become director of jazz studies at Arizona State University. This recording grew out of the trio's 2-year weekly gig at Pete Miller's, a jazz friendly steakhouse in Evanston. But Kocour (b. 1963) and Spencer (b. 1953) began working together 20 years ago as part of the drummer's fondly remembered organ trio. Meanwhile, Spencer and Sill (b. 1952) have spent thousands of hours together on Chicago bandstands since the '70s, backing such diverse stars as Hank Jones, Woody Shaw, David Liebman, Billy Eckstine, Red Rodney, Eddie Harris, Clark Terry and Jim McNeely. The pair also co-led "The Brighter Side" (Jazz Alliance) featuring saxophonist Chris Potter and pianist Garry Dial.
There are moments of magic on every tune. Kocour's visceral elegance finds multiple means of expression, from his sparkling rhythmic pop on the racehorse "I'll Remember April" to the satin touch and leisurely flow of melody and harmony in the Hank Jones-inspired unaccompanied passages on "Body and Soul." The concentration and consistency of Sill's walking lines, plump tone and dazzling solos make most bassists appear weak-kneed. Spencer brings a rare balance of maniacal energy and virtuosity, meticulous detailing and maturity to the drums. Together, Sill and Spencer remain one of the great bass-drum teams in jazz, and if that sounds like liner-note hyperbole, check out the eight-lane expressway groove they strike on "Star Eyes." But for me the highlight remains the savoir-faire intensity of "The Shadow of Your Smile." The finger-popping groove winks at Eddie Harris and the clever "hits," cat-like two-beat and mercurial dynamics honor Ahmad Jamal. Kocour simmers then boils. Sill's triplets carry the power of a concerto and Spencer swings so hard you fear for his health. There's a transcendent moment in Kocour's second chorus where he slips from single notes into block-chords and Sill and Spencer, sensing the moment, shift into a higher gear by digging into beats "2" and "4." The trio is suddenly roaring like the Basie band, but it all happens with the nonchalant quickness of a slight-of-hand magician. That, friends, is soul.
-- Mark Stryker, Detroit Free Press, Oct. 2004