Piano Prodigy

What is actually going on out in the jazz world is very different from what one usually reads about in jazz magazines or what one would conclude from taking critics’polls seriously. There are musicians out here who not only can play but who have continued to develop their skills outside of the praises of the critical establishment, whose words of admiration are usually reserved for those musicians who claim to be moving the music “forward” but who are never heard of outside of their small circles (primarily because they don’t impress other musicians who can actually play).

One ignored example of a consummate jazz musician is Eric Reed, who—with the exceptions of Bill Charlap and Brad Mehldau at their very best—can easily outplay all other piano players under 40. Neither Mehldau nor Charlap can walk past him either; it’s just that all three, for now, are in a circle reserved for the most formidable.

One needn’t be hostile toward any of the younger so-called avant-garde pianists to notice why Reed is superior to all of them. After all, these supposed avant gardists are never caught swinging, but they will annex hip-hop rhythms, use electronic gimmicks and be celebrated for “keeping jazz alive.” Reed has far greater command of the keyboard, the pedals and the touches and the nuances that make one a first-class jazz pianist.

Listen to how soulful and free of clichés he can be on some blues (hear his “Blues Five Spot”on Manhattan Melodies), or how well he can hear his way through very complex harmonies, or the size of the sound he can get out of his fingers—not by banging the instrument with his arms. In the “Jazz Composer Portraits” series that he has produced for Columbia University, Reed has proven himself not only quite an individual but also a charming bandleader and arranger.

At Columbia,I heard Reed give two concerts. One featured the music of Billy Strayhorn; the other the music of Eric Dolphy. Each was well rehearsed, and the musicians did not come on the bandstand looking as though they were rehearsing in somebody’s garage or basement (which is surely the influence of rock, that screw-you conception of looking like an unmade bed.)

At the Strayhorn concert, after his arrangements sufficiently featured fine players such as Frank Wess and Lew Soloff on other numbers,Reed took a very long solo on “Blues in Orbit.” He was absolutely splendid. The improvisation was built on a few motives that were tried in every register, using the whole keyboard, building from trills to a couple of notes to entire phrases to complete choruses phased in one sweep that told the whole story and were rung out in marvelously controlled varieties of timbre resulting from the combination of touch and the use of the pedals.

When playing the Dolphy music,which is extremely hard, Reed managed to still swing, swing, swing. He outplayed everyone, too, which was no simple task since he used Marcus Printup,Greg Osby,James Carter and the marvelous Steve Nelson, the lone vibraphonist between Bobby Hutcherson and Stefon Harris.

Gifted with perfect pitch and soaked in the soul source of Negro church music (his late father was a minister), Reed came to the public’s attention on Wynton Marsalis’ In This House, on This Morning. In that band’s broad context, Reed came to master the sweep of jazz piano, from New Orleans to the present. For an example of Reed’s imagination, listen to his feature on “Brake’s Sake” on Standard Time,Vol. 4: Marsalis Plays Monk.

Or check him out on Marsalis’ Live at the Village Vanguard. Reed’s humorously “out”invention on “Uptown Ruler”contains a startling 24-bar run of sustained and thematic rhythmic complexity that addresses the time, starting at 6:39 into the piece and not ending until 7:04. Then there’s “Pedro’s Getaway,”where—like Wynton Kelly on “Blue ’n’Boogie” from Wes Montgomery’s Full House—Reed starts smoking on the first beat!

Reed has also learned,from Monk and Ellington, how to creatively accompany in the rhythm section, as if he is playing an arrangement, which means, among other things, laying out chords with a melodic direction, inventing riffs, contrasting piano registers with those of the featured player and moving around in the time so that harmony arrives with the ultimate amount of drama as well as subtlety.

I once saw grand master Tommy Flanagan at a Javon Jackson gig at the now defunct Sweet Basil, and Reed was the pianist. Flanagan stayed all night and raved ecstatically about the younger pianist. Peter Washington, who worked with Flanagan for 15 years and was playing bass that night with Jackson, commented on how well Reed could handle the time and the exciting clarity of his ideas and execution.

If you get a chance to hear Eric Reed, don’t miss your moment. Some changes will be made, some serious rhythmic invention will take place, some deep soul will be displayed and some real jazz will be heard.

Originally published in May 2003

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