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Solo releases reveal a bright future for jazz piano. The state of jazz piano is in very good hands — or scores of good hands — with technically and creatively adroit artists spanning a broad stylistic gamut. This set of recent releases exemplifies the riches of the inherently challenging and self-defining genre of solo piano outings, each with a personal aesthetic agenda brought to the fore. With Nuna (Pi), virtuosic and poetic pianist David Virelles, a Cuban-in-New-York, has assembled a brilliant conceptual mosaic of an album in tribute to his vast range of influences and Latin American heritage. Over the course of 16 tracks, moods can shift mercurially from track to track and even within one piece. “Al Compás de Mi Viejo Tres,” for example, opens with fleetingly florid tango-flavored panache, but soon downshifts into brooding abstraction, then eases back into a medium heat solo section. On the track, and the album, somehow the diverse elements cohere into a bold and highly personal unity.
Virelles adds percussionist Julio Barreto on three tunes, and elsewhere artfully embodies the essence of piano as percussion instrument, imbued with washes of rhythmic intensity and not-necessarily-tonal excursions. The end result is hard to describe and, for adventure-seeking listeners, hard to resist. To these ears, it’s one of the year’s finest jazz recordings. An ominous specter hovers over Odesa: a Musical Walk Through a Legendary City (Sunnyside), the powerful solo piano album by Ukrainian pianist Vadim Neselovskyi. While he channels dreams and memories of his life growing up in the Ukrainian city, and also touches on legacies such as Eisenstein’s classic silent film Battleship Potemkin, with its legendary Odesa steps scene conveyed on “Potemkin Stairs,” the current Ukrainian crisis looms.
The thunderous low tones and feral rat-a-tat of “Odesa 1941” suddenly seem less about WWII than Putin’s present-tense bellicosity. Via Neselovskyi’s technical and expressive prowess, the album contains potent, lovely and lyrical moments, as on “Winter in Odesa” and “Acacia Trees,” each serving as a testament to the splendor of the city on the Black Sea, regardless of its current and tragic vulnerability. Gifted pianist Sam Reider delivers an impressive impressionistic statement on his debut solo album, Petrichor (Slow and Steady), partly as a reflection of his return from a decade in New York to his San Francisco home turf. Recorded on his grandfather’s 1918 Steinway, it also becomes a study in pandemic era introspection. Framed by the optimistic tone poem “Mirror Lake” and the bittersweet “Land’s End,” the sequence includes the driving force of the title track and the friendly ramble of the 7/8 “Panoramic Highway.” Despite its affecting emotional landscape painterliness, things can seem too tidy at times, in want of a free spirit, especially when compared to paragons such as Keith Jarrett. That may come with age and deepening artistry. The essential foundation and aesthetic values are solid. All of 25, Micah Thomas has already proven his qualifications in the ranks of noteworthy young jazz pianists, through sideman work with Immanuel Wilkins and others. His unaccompanied mastery comes to the surface on Piano Solo, released on the boutique vinyl-only label LP 345. Thomas deploys a truthful but cagily deceptive simple title on this set of standard tunes we love and thought we knew. What the restlessly talented pianist does to and around that familiar turf reaches new heights of invention-on-the-fly and post-Art Tatum-ish rococo-bop gymnastics, mixed with delicate artistry and chance-taking throughout.
Assorted thrills, languor and dazzling asides abound, from wizardly, cross-historical turns on “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Koko” to the burnished beauty of “Over the Rainbow” and “Ruby, My Dear,” to his imaginative ideas about what can still be done with “Estate” and “All the Things You Are.” The album re-asserts the notion that Thomas is one to watch, in the future, and in his intensely musical now. - Josef Woodard