An Eclectic Quartet’s “Human Pieces”

07 - Human Pieces

MIANO: Heart Kit. Skittles Heavy. Neon Eyes. Hand in a Can. Human Pieces. Twenty Fingers in a Pond. Nails in the Sky / Brian Groder, tpt; Tonino Miano, pno; Riccardo Grosso, bs; Francesco Cusa, dm / Leo Records CD LR 925

This CD is the result of American trumpeter Brian Groder’s meeting with three Italians in Catania to record it. The promo sheet describes the results as “both intensely electric and intimate…[music] that is not afraid to constantly venture into the less obvious while still finding its muscle.”

But “muscle” is not the first thing that comes to mind in the opening of Heart Kit; rather, it is the ambient sound of cymbal washes and ruminating piano. Groder provides the muscle in his adventurous but not-too-far-out solo as drummer Cusa becomes busier behind him, and Miano and Grosso fall into line. Eventually Groder does indeed play quite “outside” jazz and the rhythm becomes fractured and fragmented, although in due course Grosso plays a stream of regularly-spaced plucked notes on his bass. Then, surprisingly, the music settles down into a slow 4 as Groder moves out of the picture and Miano moves in, though the trumpeter keeps returning to put in his own comments. Thus does this quartet tease the listener by going in and out of regular rhythms (though mostly out). Despite these fluctuations, there’s a certain tightness to the quartet that grabs your attention and keeps you listening—yet, surprisingly, it ends in the middle of nowhere.

In Skittles Heavy, the beat they eventually fall into is a surprisingly funky one; in Neon Eyes, they play in more of a ballad tempo. My one caveat was that it didn’t seem to me that Groder knows how to play softly at all. Even in Neon Eyes he’s generally too loud for the mood of the piece, producing only a few notes that blend into what his rhythm section is doing. Eventually this piece picks up a bit in tempo and mood, and then Groder fits in just fine.

These little musical games continue throughout the set. At certain moments I found the music a shade too chaotic for my taste, but it’s surely a pleasure to hear jazz that doesn’t sound like sappy lounge music or ordinary, run-of-the-mill 4/4 jamming, which far too many modern jazz albums do, and in a piece like Hand in a Can the somewhat chaotic nature of the music comes together perfectly to create a strange yet fascinating mood.

I particularly liked Twenty Fingers in a Pond because it focused on the piano trio. Miano’s unusual, moving lines create a hypnotic spell on the listener, to which bassist Grosso continually adds counter-figures that move in their own direction. It’s not so much as if Grosso is complementing Miano as he is creating an entirely different piece of music that somehow dovetails with the pianist’s. By the 4:25 mark, Miano seems to ctach on to what Grosso is doing, and thus moves into quicker, shorter figures before suddenly breaking out into a fast swing beat. Really fascinating!

The final track, Nails in the Sky, opens with Miano playing some Monk-like piano as Groder explodes short figures around him, with bass and drums filling in as they see fit. It’s a nice close-out to an exploratory and mostly enjoyable set of improvised pieces. This is a truly stimulating album with some extraordinary moments in it.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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