Books On Tape Vol. 1
Craig Hartley

The 31-year-old Hartley's relatively belated debut CD was well worth the wait, as it presents in a mostly trio setting his impressive talents as a pianist and composer. Originally out on the Italian Skidoo label in 2012, Hartley has seen fit to release it on his own in the U.S. this year. Harley's piano style appears to be fully-formed, having absorbed any and all influences, and artfully combining flash with substance, or technique with depth. He studied with Jackie McLean, Joe Chambers, Garry Dial, and Andy Laverne, and has performed with Anthony Braxton, Eddie Henderson, Mario Pavone, Steve Davis, Claudio Roditi, and Steve Slagle, among others. Hartley's compositions reflect, as his liner notes indicate, his "musical and life experiences," and helping to bring them to thriving vitality are bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Henry Cole, as well as trumpeter Fabio Morgera (producer of this session and with whom Hartley has previously recorded) for two tracks and vocalist Dida Pelled for one other.

"Dial 411" is dedicated to Garry Dial, Hartley's teacher/mentor. From the opening piano run and subsequent intricate, scampering theme, this first track takes no prisoners. Hartley's concentrated attack is propelled by his forceful left hand accentuations, and also by De Rosa and Cole's committed support. The drummer's trades with Hartley evolve into an intense drum declaration, and the reprise bristles with swaggering energy--think Herbie Nichols meets Andrew Hill. The only selection not a Hartley original is the "My Foolish Heart." The pianist inventively breaks up the natural rhythmic flow of the standard in his unaccompanied prelude to the straight but buoyant 4/4 trio development. Hartley swings with a relaxed, infectious air, but his content is the thing--slurred or gliding single-note lines, two-handed unison passages, and much more. De Rosa's solo is resonantly warmhearted, with a thrust and command that recalls Eddie Gomez.

The title track "Books On Tape" was inspired by Hartley's experiences in the practice rooms and classrooms of Yale University. His intro has the manner of a classical piano étude, but gradually morphs into a more syncopated groove thanks to De Rosa and Cole's spirited teamwork. The leader's absorbing solo mixes urgent motifs with flitting runs, and De Rosa follows with a relentlessly expressive statement. Hartley returns with a lyrically and harmonically rich interlude and a bluesy, tinkling out chorus to end a piece that compares favorably to the best of Brad Mehldau's similarly variegated trio numbers. The tune "Why Not" acknowledges Hartley's time playing with Braxton and Pavone. Hartley's initial tension-laden ostinato and De Rosa's vamp lead to Morgera's muted trumpet exposition of the circular theme. Morgera's exuberant, questing solo is enhanced by Hartley's resolute comping. De Rosa's vamp reappears to frame the pianist's inquisitive musings, and both vamp and ostinato are sustained for Morgera's reprise and additional fluttering ruminations.

"K2?" is named for a favorite coffee shop of Hartley's while in college, and starts out with a tango feel interrupted by emphatic chordal segments. Hartley's improv includes cascading waves of notes and surging extended phrasings. De Rosa and Cole are in keen rapport with the pianist throughout, and De Rosa's turn again evidences his emotive persona. Hartley wisely makes room for Cole in the vamping conclusion, and the drummer takes advantage with an outburst that is both tonally and rhythmically refreshing. Hartley wrote both the music and lyrics for his touching Tin Pan Alley style ballad "I Should Love You More." Dida Pelled's heartfelt delivery, somewhat reminiscent of Blossom Dearie's, is lushly reinforced by the composer, whose solo is notable for its exquisite lyricism and glistening sound quality. "Froghollow" gets its title from the neighborhood in Hartford, CT, where Hartley played regularly in trombonist Steve Davis' band while a student at Hartt School of Music in McLean's African American music program. The delightfully waltzing melody is affectionately delineated by Hartley, and his solo displays his unassuming swing sensibility and a strong left hand that enriches his vital and cohesive right hand formulations. De Rosa impresses again with his own perfectly realized, stirring outing.

There are two versions of Hartley's "Just For Me," which was influenced by Bach's French Suite No. 5 in G Major. The first begins and ends with Hartley's rubato piano in an affecting semi-classical mode. The middle section elaborates upon the thematic elements in a jazz context harmonically and rhythmically, with blues-inflected chords, motifs, and perambulations. Cole and De Rosa are remarkably in sync and yet distinctively individual in their backing of the Hartley's exploration. The bassist's emphatically resounding improv is yet another highlight. The second interpretation, called "Just For Me (Yet)," eliminates Hartley's opening and closing, featuring instead Morgera's glowing open trumpet going immediately into the elegant theme, with the pianist contributing the effectively contrasting bridge. Morgera's outstanding solo possesses the lyrical, assured fluidity of Art Farmer, while Hartley's swings jubilantly a la Kenny Barron.

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Scott Albin