Three of a Mind
Although pianist Adam Birnbaum has released three previous discs under his leadership, he’s spent much of his career as a reliable sideman for the likes of Greg Osby, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society. This strong outing could — and should — raise his stature among the general audience.A protégé of piano legends Fred Hersch and Kenny Barron, Birnbaum shares his mentors’ impeccable sense of rhythm and their focus on crafting solid melodies. Similarly, Birnbaum’s solos are studies in fluid precision. His deft touch and diligent rejection of superfluous ideas reveal a musician in firm command of his technique — he never allows it to overwhelm the larger musical statements. But Birnbaum is also a bit more willing to loosen his harmonies and deliver subtle drops of dissonance in his phrasing.
Firmly at the helm, Birnbaum coaxes strong trio interplay from his bandmates. This is evident from the first notes of the opening track, “Binary,” on which Doug Weiss injects driving bass lines within Birnbaum’s descending chord pattern. It helps that both are members of a quartet led by the great Al Foster, who plays drums here, as well. Foster’s flexibility subtly guides rhythmically diverse fare such as the hard-charging “Stutterstep” and the slow blues of “Dream Song #1: Huffy Henry.” The trio also handle a pair of Foster compositions, highlighted by a stirring piano-drum conversation near the end of “Ooh, What You Do to Me.”
Occasionally, Birnbaum wears his influences a bit too heavily on his sleeve, as on “Thirty-Three,” which sounds like Monk by way of Hersch, and on “Dream Waltz,” which simply sounds like Hersch. Naturally, fans of contemporary piano trio will feel very comfortable here. Through sheer craftsmanship and inherent group dynamics, Birnbaum brings a level of freshness to this most familiar of settings. —John Frederick Moore