You’ve reached a Premium article. To continue reading, please login or start a 3-MONTH TRIAL SUBSCRIPTION for just 99 cents/month. You’ll receive unlimited digital access plus a complimentary issue of our award-winning print magazine.
At some point while they were recording Inflexion, the long-in-the-making debut album by the Russell Ferrante Trio, drummer Steve Schaeffer reminded the pianist and Yellowjackets co-founder about the first session they ever did together. It was in the early-’80s, some years after they first met through mutual friend and original Jackets guitarist Robben Ford. Both showed up outside Mama Jo’s studio in North Hollywood for a studio date with John Klemmer. Just as Ferrante was unloading the electric piano from his truck with Schaeffer’s assistance, a guy in a wheelchair appeared randomly, crashed into the vehicle and asked him for a ride. Figuring he had time for a quick drive, the keyboardist lifted the guy and his chair into his truck and took off. Ferrante was instructed to keep going for several miles, and by the time he dropped the man offat a park and got back to the studio, he was half an hour late for the session. “I later learned this guy lived in a local group home and escaped and staged crashes like this all the time,” Ferrante says. “Quite a chaotic origin story for what has now blossomed into this incredible collaboration. My original meeting with bassist Mike Valerio, my other cohort in the new trio, was a bit less eventful.” And caper-free. The two first vibed at a session for singer Lorraine Feather about a dozen years ago. One of the most remarkable aspects of the formation of the Russell Ferrante Trio and the recording of Inflexion — a title which the pianist explains as coming “from the Latin root ‘inflexionem,’ meaning to bend in, to change direction” — is the organic, slow-simmering way it evolved. The project was not a matter of a leader of a classic ensemble deciding on the spur of the moment to stretch his wings, make a few calls and set up some rehearsals.
In fact, as Ferrante explains, “I don’t think we would have done anything beyond recording some demos or playing a few gigs but for Steve’s urging us to take it further and create a bona fide recording. I give him credit for spearheading everything and taking us to fruition. He believed people needed to hear what we were creating and urged me to get it out there. I was reluctant for a while because I am still pretty fulfilled writing and playing with the Yellowjackets, which have been the center of my musical activity for over 40 years.” The trio’s foundations were laid 10 years ago, when longtime Jackets recording engineer Rich Breen was helping Schaeffer put together his home studio in the L.A. suburb of Toluca Lake. Breen suggested that Ferrante, Valerio and engineer Aaron Walk — who would end up as Inflexion’s co-producer and mixer — would be ideal candidates to troubleshoot and, as the pianist says, “kick the tires.” Ferrante had a few compositions that fell outside the Jackets’ usual repertoire that he wanted to try, as well. The three musicians started jamming and quickly realized they shared a natural rapport and dynamic chemistry. Over the years, when Ferrante had a free moment from his Jackets commitments and his teaching gig at USC’s Thornton School of Music, and Schaeffer and Valerio were available, the three gigged at prominent SoCal venues, including the Jazz Vesper series at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and at Café Stritch in Ferrante’s hometown of San Jose. “We started recording material in rehearsals 10 years ago, but most of the final versions on Inflexion came from the little push Steve gave us at the beginning of 2020 before COVID,” Ferrante says. “We had already recorded almost everything we would use for the album but weren’t happy with five or six songs, so we re-cut them the way we wanted. A few of the standards, including Duke Ellington’s ‘Isfahan’ and ‘How Deep Is the Ocean,’ resided on a hard drive until we re-listened to and then completed them. Our approach was very much like one of my favorite trios of all time, Keith Jarrett’s group with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette. I love how they played standards that sounded so fresh and in the moment, not worn and beaten in any way.”
[caption id="attachment_38766" align="alignleft" width="1280"] Russell Ferrante (Photo: Courtesy Blue Canoe Records)[/caption]
Beyond the standards — which include the bustling Monk classic “Rhythm-a-Ning” and a meditative stroll through “We Shall Overcome,” a subtle homage to the traditional and modern civil rights movements — Ferrante fashions an eclectic set that includes two originals intrinsic to the theme of the album, a bright and swinging romp through a 30-year-old tune he wrote for Eric Marienthal (“Spoons”), and four re-imagined gems from the Jackets’ vast repertoire.On the elegant and increasingly whimsical “Inflexion D,” built around a hypnotic five-note left-hand phrase, Ferrante challenged himself to a tricky exercise in “hand independence,” during which he keeps a motif going in one hand while improvising with the other. The later mid-tempo ballad “Inflexion A” matches that intriguing duality but is crafted around a seven-note right-hand phrase. Both tunes, like the intricate and adventurous revamp of the Jackets’ “57 Chevy” (from 2005’s Altered State), find Ferrante experimenting with rhythmic mathematics, creating symmetrical sounds via overlapping (what he calls) “asymmetric” odd numbers from one bar to the next. The title “57 Chevy” alludes not only to the classic auto but to the five- and seven-note groupings in the melody and accompaniment.The other Jackets pieces include the buoyant, percussively dense “Stick-to-it-iveness” (from 1998’s Club Nocturne), featuring Schaeffer on hadphoon (a unique percussion instrument designed by percussionist Jamey Haddad) and Valerio’s bowed bass; the gently lyrical, then playfully swinging, MLK-inspired “Network Mutuality” (from 2018’s Raising Our Voice); and “I Do,” a passionate and tender-hearted tribute to Ferrante’s parents who were married for 60 years, written just after his mother’s passing in 2011 (from Timeline, released that same year).
“Though our trio music is gentler, more introspective and utilizes more space than when I record with the Jackets, there is an interesting connection to them,” Ferrante says. “Both groups are democracies, with each member having equal input. As the pianist in the trio, I have greater responsibility for the melody than I do in the Jackets where Bob Mintzer often takes that role, but the collaborative sensibilities are the same. We all share the joys and burdens of the hard decision-making that goes into making a great recording. “We were also blessed to have Aaron Walk, who created a beautiful sonic environment that made it comfortable and easy to record. He also weighed in on which takes were the strongest. It was invaluable having the perspective of a more objective listener to keep us on track. The thing I love most about playing and recording is hearing something that surprises me — patterns or chord voicings that come to me so quickly I don’t even know what they are. The spontaneity of the trio allowed for many moments like this. It was all about substance, making the music the king and doing whatever was required to communicate the feeling of the songs.”
Mark Winkler & David Benoit, Old Friends (Cafe Pacific)
Vocalist Mark Winkler and pianist David Benoit found a hip, emotionally compelling yet elegant way around social distancing, conceiving of their new album while under COVID lockdown. Accompanied on half the tracks by guitar and rhythm section, the longtime pals and musical compadres collaborated on an intimate yet often whimsically swinging set of standards — some well-known, some obscure — and originals. The production, by longtime Winkler associate Barbara Brighton, is sheer exquisite coolness and includes Stefanie Fife’s haunting cello on three tunes, most prominently on the whimsically poetic “Dragonfly” and a sweetly heartbreaking rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Old Friends/Bookends.”