This recording is one of the most intriguing CD’s I’ve heard in a long time. The organ trio is a small group setting where the musicians must improvise in order to fill the space of a larger ensemble. Greg Skaff not only understands this, he employs all that is necessary to have a big sound. Too often guitar players, in this configuration, depend on “guitar licks” to execute the sound that can result in redundancy. Equipped with vast musical knowledge, his use of lush chords, fast articulation, virtuosity, and technique, Skaff avoids repetition. The trio is so flexible as they skillfully interpret songs, written by musicians not necessarily for their instruments, without sacrificing their own voices. Chock full of swing, rapid tempos and ballads, each song has its own story and path. This offering is not a typical guitar/organ CD filled with the “gut bucket blues”, nor have the songs been often recorded, heard or overplayed. Skaff has chosen material that is not generally associated with guitarists. Of his original work he has also included his previously recorded beautiful ballad “Tropicalia”, featuring Paul Nowinski, bass and Mauro Refosco on percussion.
116th & Park opens with Beehive, the up-tempo composition written by Harold Mabern who worked and recorded with Lee Morgan. The original tune can be found on Morgan's release Live at the Lighthouse. Says Skaff, “I used to listen to that record a lot, and I learned the song from there. Upon hearing Eric Alexander's CD with Mabern, it reminded me what a great line that is. It's not the usual kind of line that guitar players play. And the solo section is so open that there are a lot of different ways you can approach it”. They brilliantly capture the essence of “Beehive” with their exciting solos. Organist Pat Bianchi shows off his lightening licks, as he masterfully pedals on one chord before his solo. Drummer Ralph Peterson Jr, as usual, takes powerful command while he tells a story on the drums independent of the song’s melody.
The Trio’s interpretation of Buster Williams’ Dual Force allows us to hear the harmonic changes and to hear the bass differently, as Bianchi plays the bass line. Skaff first heard the song played by Bobby Hutcherson at the now-defunct club “Lush Life”. So taken with the tune, Skaff later found out that it was then called “Firewater.” According to Skaff, “Kenny Barron and Freddie Hubbard both recorded ‘killer’ versions of “Dual Force” that are hard to measure up to”.
To further illustrate his musical palate, Skaff pays tribute to Thelonious Monk with Bye-Ya. He learned the song after watching Jay Leno one night when Branford Marsalis was still leading the band, and they played it going to a commercial. Says he, “It took a while to get a handle on it, because it's an unusual chord sequence, but it's a lot of fun to play.” The hip turnaround at the end of the melodic phrase is a nice touch.
Giving a nod to another master, having worked with many vocalists, he often got to play Duke’s tune Come Sunday, and he has since grown to love it. A pensive guitar introduction is followed by the statement of the melody before the trio starts swinging, after which they return to a ballad feel.
The inclusion of Peterson’s song The Jugular presents a different composing style, thereby changing the shape of the band. Peterson, whose compositional skills should not be overlooked, emerged in the mid-'80s as co-leader of the high visibility ensemble OTB. His decade-old Fo'tet is the platform by which he expresses his deeply held musical principles and where he presents much of his writing.
All artists draw inspiration from many sources. Influenced by his neighborhood he has grown to love, Skaff wrote the song 116th & Park in tribute to East Harlem, his home for eleven years. To quote, “it's [both] peaceful and interesting. 116th St & Park Ave is near where I live, but the title is also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the BET hip-hop show ‘106th & Park’”. This mid-tempo swing tune has Skaff taking the second solo where he slowly tells his melodic tale, ending with a tight cut off at the end. His other originals, Lapis and Serenade to a Surdo are reminiscent of Flamenco and Brazilian genres, musical styles not usually featured in a guitar/organ trio setting. So expert is the musicians’ knowledge of the tradition and their ability to go outside of it, one could forget that this is an organ trio. They are a cohesive unit that swings hard. All three are serious about the music, and they work hard to get it right which makes Invocation so compelling. I enjoy its prominent drum solo intro. Peterson’s freedom during the melody leans towards being a solo and his hits are as if he is playing the melody.
Skaff’s tune Tropicalia had been previously recorded with George Colligan on organ and E.J. Strickland on drums, on his 2009 ZOHO CD release “East Harlem Skyline”. The song’s composition was inspired by not only reading Caetano Veloso’s autobiography “Tropical Truth”, but also by the “colors of the harmony” in the music of Brazilian composer Hector Villa-Lobos. Tropicalia, or Tropicalismo is the name of a musical movement in Brazil that began in the 1960s. Skaff studied classical guitar for several years but never recorded on nylon string until now. “It’s somewhat of a different beast than the electric guitar, both in the way it’s played and the instrument itself, but I wrote Tropicalia on nylon string guitar. I feel that that instrument gives the song the right flavor.” After recording the guitar tracks first, Skaff felt that it would be more effective with added percussion and bass.
Individually and collectively Skaff, Bianchi and Peterson have been in the forefront of Jazz. Bianchi, an in-demand organist, leads his own group and works with Lou Donaldson, Joey DeFrancesco and Pat Martino. Peterson and Skaff both spent time in Stanley Turrentine’s and Bobby Watson’s bands. Though it had been years since they had played together, the chemistry was still strong between them. Skaff therefore decided to reunite with Peterson, adding Bianchi to tour Italy as a trio. This release is a testament to what greatness comes out of a union of simpatico musicians who love and respect the art form and each other. This stellar release is also an example of what makes Jazz music so creative and constantly evolving. With “116th & Park”, Greg Skaff has taken the organ trio format to an impressive new level.
Sheila Elaine Anderson, author,
on-air-host, WBGO, 88.3FM