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April 2009

Ray Bryant
In the Back Room
Evening Star Records

The dozen performances found on In the Back Room derive from a pair of concerts by the great, if still sorely underappreciated, pianist Ray Bryant at Rutgers University in 2004 and 2008. Together these tracks comprise a thoroughly enjoyable hour’s worth of solo jazz piano that seems to pass in half the time, which is all the more remarkable when you consider that Bryant often hews to a leisurely pace while revisiting pieces composed by two of his primary influences: James P. Johnson and Fats Waller.

On “Jitterbug Waltz,” Waller’s descending theme casually spins into the turnarounds before inspiring delightful melodic variations, and Bryant’s rendering of the same composer’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” casts the tune in an unusually soulful light. Johnson is likewise represented by a wonderfully evocative interpretation of “If I Could Be With You,” a performance that further illustrates Bryant’s stylistic reach in knowing, timeless, decidedly two-handed fashion.

Not least among the album’s treats, however, are the original tunes. The album’s rumbling title track is as boogie-driven as its title suggests, and “Little Girl,” which makes its recording debut here, offers a lovely interlude. As the album draws to a close, Bryant brings a fresh slant to Cole Porter’s “Easy to Love” and W.C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues” in ways that also invite repeat listenings. Albums largely devoted to pop and jazz standards are common these days, but how often do you encounter one that infuses each performance with the charm and vitality that Bryant brings to this collection?

Originally published in April 2009
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