It’s easy to take Larry Willis’ gifts for granted, since the veteran pianist who has contributed to countless studio sessions over the years always seems to elevate the level of play. But Blue Fable opens with such a delightful jolt that even longtime listeners will sit up and take notice.
Not surprisingly, it’s Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-A-Ning” that initially stirs Willis’ imagination. In Ted Panken’s liner notes, Willis is quoted as saying he feels “a “very cosmic attachment” to Monk, and after listening to him scamper through “Rhythm-A-Ning,” punctuating knotty chromaticism with hammered accents, all the while swinging vibrantly in the company of bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Drummond, that connection couldn’t be more obvious. Drummond’s opening salvo, with its martial cadences, and the complementary solos that he and Gomez later fashion further freshen the tune.
Four of the eight tracks here are devoted to trio performances, among them a spacious and soulful take on “Nardis,” shaded by Drummond’s deft brushwork, and the album’s haunting centerpiece, “Never Let Me Go,” a lovely staple in Willis’ repertoire. The remaining cuts find Willis in a quartet setting that features alto saxophonist Joe Ford and trombonist Steve Davis. Both horn players contribute tunes to the session—Ford’s “Landscape” and Davis’ “Prayer for New Orleans—that nicely (and often brashly) offset the familiar pieces. Fittingly, Davis’ elegiac ballad/burner is saved for last, ending Blue Fable on a grace note.