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As jazz composers continue to develop and expand compositional formats, their endeavors sometimes leave listeners wondering where the tune leaves off and the improvisations begin. Not so with veteran pianist Michael Weiss’ compositions. Unlike many of today’s trendy and enigmatic “through-composed” pieces, Weiss’ tunes sound like tunes — easy on the ears and deceptively basic. But casually performed they are not, the principle benefit culminating in cliché-less improvisations, an elusive goal dating back to the earliest jazz practitioners.
A perennial sideman with the likes of veteran saxophonists Johnny Griffin, George Coleman and many others, Weiss presents his fifth leader date as a nicely varied, eight-song set featuring his working quartet: tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist Paul Gill and drummer Pete Van Nostrand. Well-crafted originals and thoughtfully arranged standards are covered at various tempi and grooves. Even on uptempo fare such as Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and Weiss originals “Persistence,” “Après Vous” and “Birthday Blues,” the pianist’s beautifully expressive tone remains front and center.
Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Once I Loved” fluctuates between a quasi-rock beat and a rambunctious samba. In addition to jacking up the energy level from its usual easygoing bossa groove, Weiss plays with the chord changes, employing a descending chromatic design to make the song his own. Taken at a medium uptempo, Thelonious Monk’s typically quirky “Epistrophy” features Alexander blowing double-time barrages of notes, followed by Weiss, then Van Nostrand’s tasty drum solo accompanied by Gill’s walking bass.
No tune better displays a musician’s individual sound than a ballad. The seldom heard standard “Only the Lonely,” performed here in trio, places Weiss in the category of similarly beautiful-sounding stalwarts Kenny Barron and Tommy Flanagan — an enviable position for any pianist. — James Rozzi