Acoustic-- Spero

Spero is Greg Spero, the versatile Chicago-based pianist who has played with Cory Wilkes, Maurice Brown, Robert Irving III, and Marlene Rosenberg. He has been a member of GMG, a group described as mixing "experimental jazz" with "funk-rock." In addition, he has recorded with hip-hop artists, and written music for plays and films. Yet whichever musical direction Spero chooses to go in the future, this CD--simply titled Acoustic--should be one of his key calling cards for years to come. It consists of refined, flawlessly executed piano trio jazz, never on auto pilot, and without a wasted note. The interaction between Spero, bassist Matt Ulery, and drummer Makaya McCraven is seamless and uplifting. Ulery and McCraven, fellow Windy City residents, have wide-ranging resumes as well, to which their work here will be laudable additions.

The opener, "Hills," is a seductive, rippling Spero theme that lingers in the mind long after hearing. The pianist's solo expands upon it with lyrical flair, and then in subsiding surprisingly ends the piece, leaving us without a much desired reprise. Ulery and McCraven provide the proper and fitting enhancements. The darting, Latin-tinged "Latin Fusion Blues" projects upbeat emotion. Spero's appealing left-hand chords elevate his concise improv, and also frame McCraven's delicate commentary. A circular arpeggio serves as the foundation for the hypnotic "Flow." The leader's ecstatic, surging solo is energized by the emphatic bass lines of Ulery, and McCraven's hyperactive, reactive, and highly complementary drumming. This is a compelling performance by the airtight trio, with a concluding section that is just as pleasingly soothing as what came before was fiery and intense.

"Letting It Go" is a tranquil ballad, with Spero's repeating left-hand figure enchanting the listener. Ulery's solo is laden with feeling and played with a full and resounding tone, and at its peak receives driving support from the pianist. For "Universe," a tentative opening is laced with rich chords that establish a spiritual/gospel mood. Once the melody appears and the rhythm is solidified by Ulery and McCraven, the track is reminiscent of one of Abdullah Ibrahim's swaying South African hymn-like works. Spero's focused thematic development, attractive harmonies, and luminescent keyboard sound all merge to create an unforgettable aural experience.

The only non-Spero composition, "Blue In Green" from Miles Davis, is launched by an urgent piano ostinato that abruptly dissolves when the familiar theme emerges and is sensitively delineated. Spero's statement contains an assemblage of fluttering staccato phrases at first, but soon a relentless attack commences and is sustained for the duration. The trio's interplay is exciting and very rewarding. The brief reprise comes as a sigh of contentment after a particularly satisfying journey. It's rare to hear a group display as much rapport as does Spero, Ulery, and McCraven on this CD. A comparison to Brad Mehldua's trio with Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy would be apt and not an exaggeration. The recording ends with Spero's moving solo piano intepretation of "Universe," which possesses the same reverent spirituality as the trio version. The deep passion expressed by Spero is accentuated here by his soft dynamics and sparse, contemplative development.

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Scott Albin