“I Surrender Dear”
How do artists slip the bonds of training and influence and develop a voice of their own? This question haunted pianist Billy Lester, a longtime student of Sal Mosca, who was himself a disciple of Lennie Tristano. In his early 30s, Lester was determined to discover his voice, intently concentrating on his emotional state as he sat at the piano and allowed his feelings to guide his hands. The experience was an epiphany, one that has served Lester well over the ensuing decades and informs the deeply personal music on From Scratch, his 2019 release for Newvelle’s fourth season. Joined by veteran bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Matt Wilson, the pianist strives for emotional truth on his renditions of Great American Songbook standards such as “Body and Soul” and “These Foolish Things.” Like a gymnast taking a few preliminary bounces on the trampoline, Lester picks out the introduction to “I Surrender Dear,” Bing Crosby’s first solo hit in 1931 (also covered by Louis Armstong in 1930 and by Thelonious Monk many years later). Without altering the tempo or the mood, Reid and Wilson layer Lester’s dreamy phrasing with cat-step quiet accompaniment. Lester gets to the poignant heart of the matter as he concludes the song on a tear-stained note, underlined by Reid’s heartbeat pulse and Wilson’s shimmering cymbals.