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On his third album for the mainstream-oriented Posi-Tone label, pianist Theo Hill expands from a trio format to include vibraphonist Joel Ross and also broadens his keyboard palette to include Fender Rhodes and occasional light coatings of synthesizer.
While it may be seen as a coup to recruit Ross, one of the hot young names in jazz, for the 10-track set of mostly Hill originals, the two estimable players often make for an uncomfortable pairing. They routinely trade phrases and solo simultaneously. These extended segments of interlaced piano and vibes — rarely played in harmony or unison — cause musical congestion. And the two instruments have enough tonal similarity to confuse matters even further. And further still, Hill often plays with a heavy, insistent left hand, which can dominate the sound field and thus stifle the twosome’s attempts at refined interplay.
When Hill and Ross uncoil and use a more conventional approach — by playing the lead melody together or alone, and each taking solo turns — the music breathes better. The breezy “Guardians of Light” most effectively demonstrates this more orderly division of labor. On “Swell,” Hill takes a winning, relaxed solo on Rhodes. Ross then steps in with his own measured energy, but then the two conclude by swapping busy short solos and driving into a traffic jam, undermining the tune’s charm.
Ross sits out during a four-minute cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman.” Hill plays the sweet melody on Rhodes, then incorporates a piano solo and ladles on some subtle synth colorings. The performance may not break new ground, but it’s an affectionate rendition of a lovely pop song that’s nearly five decades old.
Bassist Rashaan Carter (on upright and electric) and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. provide able, sympathetic support. Neither of them solos. Reality Check is clearly Hill and Ross’ show, and while both acquit themselves as accomplished musicians, they tend to get in each other’s way more than comprise a complementary team.— Eric Snider
Featured photo by Anna Yatskevich.