LIVE AT BIRDLAND / DePAUL: You Don’t Know What Love Is. BEIRACH-HUEBNER: Around Bartók Bagatelle No. 4. Bach Siciliana. HUEBNER: African Heartbeat. BEIRACH: Elm. COLTRANE: Transition / Richie Beirach, pn; Gregor Huebner, vln; Randy Brecker, tpt; George Mraz, bs; Billy Hart, dm / Act 9839-2 (live: New York, August 25-26, 2012)
I’ve been familiar with pianist Richie Beirach for ages, at least as a sideman on others’ recordings (and occasionally as leader of his own group), but to be honest, violinist Gregor Huebner was never on my radar. This was my first time hearing Beirach in many years and my first time ever hearing Huebner.
To put it mildly, Beirach is impressive. As a way of celebrating his 70th birthday, which occurred on May 23 of this year. Munich-based Act Records has released this blistering set from Birdland almost five years ago. The pianist sounds so deeply involved that it almost sounds as if he was playing the piano standing up, Jerry Lee Lewis style, and as if he was watching his own left hand to discover the cues it would give to his right. His solo on the opener, You Don’t Know What Love Is, almost conjured up memories of Dorothy Donegan in its exuberance and virtuosity.
But the rest of the band is not comprised of slackers. Trumpeter Randy Brecker is in fine fettle here as well, playing the opening chorus in such a hot manner that Beirach almost had to be on his toes or he’d have been overshadowed. Huebner, as it turns out, sounds a bit like a cross between Ray Nance and Stéphane Grappelli. His attack on the strings is not always pure or “legitimate”—he “squeezes” some notes a bit and likes to play on the edge of the strings occasionally—but his velocity and technique are close to what Grappelli could do. With their finely-tuned ears and classical backgrounds, Beirach and Huebner are a perfect fit to jazz up the classical pieces of Bela Bartók and J.S. Bach. You really do need both an outstanding ear and the right sesntivity to be able to play like this, particularly in the case of Huebner who is called upon to play “fills” in and around the basic structure of the tune, initially given to us straight by Brecker. Then, at 2:34, Beirach picks up the tempo and begins playing an improvisation built around the basic chord structure of the piece. He goes into a nice single-note chorus reminiscent of the work of his teacher, Lennie Tristano, who also loved to play classical works in a jazz setting, eventually opening up into richly-chorded, two-handed playing. Both he and his rhythm section of bassist Mraz and drummer Hart really push the beat hard, leaning back a bit intensity when Brecker comes in for his solo. A consistent delight in this set, Brecker is in top form, giving the co-leaders a run for their money.
The Bartók tribute runs right into the Bach Siciliana, but played as it is in double-time, a cappella by Huebner, wailing away on his fiddle, you’d scarcely recognize it. Not until 1:44 into the piece does he come close to the original melody, which is then passed on to the piano trio, Beirach’s piano introduced by a wash of cymbals. The violin-piano duo then play the melody proper, and we’re off! Beirach ramps the tempo up, then eases it back down again, before Huebner comes in to join him for the finale.
We are then treated to two originals, Huebner’s African Heartbeat and Beirach’s Elm. The former has a nice, swaggering beat at a medium tempo, with some tricky rhythmic displacements in the bridge. This is almost a fantasia-type piece, played with great imagination and vigor by the two principals. Brecker sits out more than half the tract, but when he comes in he is flying—soaring out into space without a safety net. Then the more sedate finale. Elm begins quietly, with Beirach playing the strings of his piano, before moving into a quiet, nicely loping beat. Brecker is again brilliant, Huebner relaxed and imaginative. But the tempo drops even further and things get very quiet for Beirach’s second, longer exposure in this track.
The band rides out on a high bebop note with John Coltrane’s Transition, amd boy oh boy do they nail it! Everyone is flying high by this time, the band is tight, the soloists primed and it all gels just right. There’s a terrific passage in which Huenber and Brecker go screaming off to the races, with the violinist eventually leaving the trumpeter in the dust. WOW! This is pretty hot stuff. A blistering drum solo by Hart, an ensemble chorus, and we ride off into the sunset.
This has to be one of the most terrific new jazz albums I’ve heard in a long, long time. It cooks from start to finish and is simply terrific. What are you waiting for? Get it!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley