116th & Park-- Greg Skaff

Skaff is no stranger to the guitar-organ-drums format, having previously recorded with Mike LeDonne and Joe Farnsworth (Ellington Boulevard, Blues for Mr. T). and George Colligan and E.J. Strickland (East Harlem Skyline). This time around guitarist Skaff joins forces with Pat Bianchi and Ralph Peterson Jr., and this trio's versatility, musicianship, and great rapport make this CD another standout. Skaff's credits include the bands of Bobby Watson and Stanley Turrentine (five years), in both of which he played with Peterson, who is best known for his own group the Fo'Tet. Bianchi, who has performed with other guitarists such as Mark Whitfield, Pat Martino, and Ed Cherry, has also recorded more than once with Peterson, most recently for the drummer's Unity Project, which explored the music of organist Larry Young. Skaff makes his recording debut here on nylon string acoustic guitar for three flamenco or Brazilian-derived originals, in keeping with the Zoho Music label's emphasis on World music. Otherwise, the music leans towards the kind of hard bop/soul that one might expect from this instrumentation.

Harold Mabern's "Beehive" was first recorded by Lee Morgan, and has a frenetic, tension-laden up-tempo theme that finds Peterson in full flight from the start. Skaff's solo sustains the pace with freshly flowing ideas, and his vamp with Bianchi sets up the organist's equally intense improv, with surging bass pedal lines raising the temperature even more. Peterson caps this remarkable opening track with a buoyantly aggressive workout that continues on through the reprise. "116th & Park" is Skaff's tribute to his East Harlem neighborhood. A relaxed tempo accentuates the unique harmonies engendered by Skaff and Bianchi on the ringing, fragmented theme. The organist's streamlined, lucid phrasings during his solo contrast with the leader's more staccato but similarly effective thematic probings. Peterson skillfully manages to be both provocative and complementary.

The theme of Buster Williams' "Dual Force" is engagingly shared by Skaff and Bianchi. Skaff's variegated solo receives elaborate shadings from the organist and drummer, and Bianchi then gets discerning attention by his trio mates during his own warmly pulsing trip. Skaff and Bianchi maintain a vamp at the end of the reprise to allow for Peterson's dynamic assertions. Skaff's "Lapis" opens with him on acoustic guitar before the trio convenes for a repeat of the reflective classical/flamenco sounding melody, with the guitarist apparently now back on electric. His lyrical solo is intricately woven and involving. Bianchi impresses with an excursion that is tasteful, nimble, and emotional. Again, a circling vamp at the close makes room for Peterson's dexterous, multi-colored manipulations.

Monk's "Bye-Ya" gets a thorough investigation, with Peterson's ongoing, lusty and protean drum work elevating the proceedings. Both Skaff and Bianchi show their deep understanding of the composer's melodic and rhythmic idiosyncrasies in brisk and assured improvisations, and their by now welcome vamps give Peterson another chance to leave his definitive mark just before the theme's return. Skaff's "Tropicalia" first appeared on his East Harlem Skyline release, and is inspired by both Caetano Veloso and Heitor Villa-Lobos. This time he recorded it solo on the nylon string guitar, and only later added Paul Nowinski's bass and Mauro Refosco's percussion to the soundtrack. The three-minute piece possesses the swaying weightlessness characteristic of much of Brazil's Tropicalismo musical movement, but is not to be confused with Beck's popular tune of the same title.

"The Jugular" is a Peterson opus with a light, welcoming spirit that belies its name. Skaff softens his guitar tone moderately to better fit this sensibility, as can be heard in his melody exposition and subsequent wafting solo. Bianchi's sally, on the other hand, accelerates, ascends, and indeed goes for the jugular, and Peterson's cymbal textures are particularly enthralling. Peterson's unrestrained drum prelude segues smoothly into Skaff's catchy, riffing "Invocation." The ceaseless, riveting momentum of the guitarist's up-tempo solo, and his crafty comping for Bianchi's equally driven outing help to make this a track beckoning repeat listens.

A cleverly conceived intro by Skaff leads to his graceful, heartfelt rendering of Ellington's "Come Sunday," with Bianchi's held tones and Peterson's seductive patterns in keen alliance. Skaff's solo resounds with bluesy feeling and profound sentiment. Bianchi's own statement is oddly truncated, leaving one wanting much more, especially so due to Peterson's sublime accompaniment. "Serenade to a Surdo" presents Skaff once more on acoustic for his flamenco influenced theme. Bianchi's exclamatory solo is a head turner, and Skaff's spry, rocketing improv is played on his electric prior to a return to acoustic for the contemplative reprise.

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Scott Albin