Friday, February 9, 2018

Billy Lester Trio's Italy 2016

Italy 2016 sounds like the title of a live jazz album. Pianist Billy Lester's new album isn't live, but the liner notes suggest that he's aiming for "the vibrant feel of live performances." I'd have to agree--at the end of each track I halfway expect to hear applause. The idea behind this album, however, is that Billy is joined by two esteemed jazz musicians from Italy--bassist Marcello Testa and drummer Nicola Stranieri. This trio first met in 2014 and built up such a natural rapport as a trio that they decided to record this album in Italy in...well, you know when.

Billy Lester has built up quite a cult following, which is unusual since he's recorded only seven albums in the last 20 years. He definitely has a distinct style, employing quick and adjacent keywork that rolls steadily back and forth across the board. It sounds as if he's playing with his hands and fingers closed in, fast and repetitive over the same geography. He's adventurous in the way he goes off on improvisational tangents as well--he's not afraid to veer into dissonance, but he does return quickly and precisely. He's a jazz pianist's pianist.

His Italian cohorts match his small, quick journeys with equal subtlety. Stranieri, for instance, plays softly and doesn't draw undue attention to himself but his momentum is essential to the drive of these six original tracks. (These sojourns run between seven and twelve minutes each.) Testa matches Lester with an almost fraternal sense of rhythm. It's easy to see why Lester bonded with these two gentlemen--there's a drive to this trio that seems carefully calibrated, even when the improvisations go off the map.

Sound quality is also strong--as I mentioned, the musicians were able to capture the sound of a live performance in the studio, and that's not easy to do. While the overall feel of this album is introspective, without wide sweeps of emotion or dynamics, this is the type of "interior" jazz that pulls you in and dares you to consider the placement of each note. Perhaps this synergy will convince these three men to come to the US and play for American audiences--people who know there jazz and are willing to pay close attention.

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