Engaged. That’s how I felt during every minute of the set of music you will encounter in this major statement by a young artist and master of musical legerdemain whose motto is “I am an unapologetic perfectionist."
And he is. Aaron had many laudable qualities when he entered Juilliard’s nascent jazz program in 2003, but the predominant one was his seriousness about the task at hand: mastering jazz. Already an accomplished classical pianist, he was mentored by Wynton Marsalis (even making a short tour with the master’s band just before starting at Juilliard), and excelled not only in his music courses, but in academics as well, garnering Lincoln Center's prestigious Martin E. Segal award in 2004.
Basic facts: Richard and Estelle Diehl’s son Aaron was born on September 22, 1985 in Columbus, Ohio. Inspired early on by his grandfather, who played trombone and piano, Aaron studied with a variety of teachers, including Mark Flugge, Bobby Floyd, and Paula Radzynski. Meeting Eldar Djangirov in 1998 at an Interlochen summer camp session was a significant moment and helped steer Aaron, who was there as a classical pianist, towards jazz. Another major influence was Todd Stoll, a band director with a passion for jazz and the leader of a local jazz orchestra. The band went to New York in 2002 as a finalist in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington competition, and it was then that Aaron met Wynton Marsalis, who called him shortly thereafter for the aforementioned tour. During his Juilliard years, Aaron studied with Oxana Yablonskaya and Eric Reed, in addition to time spent with Marcus Roberts and Hank Jones. Since graduating from Juilliard in 2007, Aaron has maintained a busy schedule of work (including recent trips to the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Europe), teaching, and playing at St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church in Harlem.
But all of these facts don’t reflect Aaron’s art. The selections you are about to see/hear do, and they are startling. He has managed to pull off that rarest of rare feats in jazz: the perfect marriage of composition and improvisation. Over the years, I’ve witnessed Aaron immerse himself in the music of, among others, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, and John Lewis (he even looks like John at the piano on occasion!) and here, in all their glory – and I use that word intentionally – are the fruits of his labor.
Every piece is set in a perfect frame, showcasing the specific strengths of Aaron and his equally virtuosic and swinging partners, bassist David Wong and drummer Quincy Davis. We also hear Paul Sikivie (bass) and Lawrence Leathers (drums) on “The Player’s Blues” and “Green Chimneys.” This isn’t the place for a detailed musicological analysis of Aaron’s compositional talents but suffice it to say that each piece is draped in the perfect musical garment to accentuate its specific shape and character. To use yet another analogy, some are ingeniously structured like a melodic game of three-card monte (hear Conception). But enough of describing the joys contained herein. They are manifold. This is one of the best new piano trio recordings I have ever heard. There’s a bright future ahead for Aaron Diehl, and this is just the beginning.