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Aaron Diehl: The Vagabond (Mack Avenue)

A review of the pianist's third album for Mack Avenue

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Aaron Diehl, The Vagabond
The cover of The Vagabond by Aaron Diehl

Move over, Jelly Roll Morton, George Gershwin, and Fats Waller. Make room for Sir Roland Hanna, Philip Glass, and Sergei Prokofiev. In keeping with his past concerts and recordings, pianist Aaron Diehl once again turns the spotlight on some of his chief inspirations with striking finesse and originality.

But before the salutes unfold on The Vagabond, Diehl distinguishes himself as a composer in his own right with several intriguing pieces, each exquisitely shaded or propelled by bassist Paul Sikivie and drummer Gregory Hutchinson. The trio’s nuanced interplay is a marvel to hear on these mostly muted performances, and yet, more often than not, what sets them apart from the work of Diehl’s contemporaries is the pianist’s restive, unpredictable right hand. Pat melodic designs and resolutions are not an option for Diehl, it seems, nor are routine progressions. Instead, elliptical single-note lines lend his compositions a probing energy, a quality that vibrantly offsets his innate lyricism. Chamber-like tints, pizzicato interjections, orchestral colors, and surprising tangents further enhance the spacious arrangements. Both the album’s title track and its rhythmically fitful opener, “Polaris,” are prime examples.

As for the interpretations, for all the respect and affection Diehl holds for the composers represented here (including John Lewis, whose ties to Diehl are well-documented), the 34-year-old pianist consistently stamps these performances with his own touch and personality. No doubt many listeners enticed by Glass’ “Piano Etude No. 16” and Prokofiev’s “March from Ten Pieces for Piano, Op. 12” will find much to enjoy on The Vagabond—but heads up: Diehl’s soulful treatment of Hanna’s “A Story Often Told, But Seldom Heard” has the most lingering impact.

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Mike Joyce

A former editor of JazzTimes, Mike Joyce has written extensively on jazz, blues, country, and pop music for The Washington Post, Maryland and Washington, D.C. public television stations, and other outlets.