Bruce Barth: Three Things of Beauty

Pianist Bruce Barth and vibraphonist Steve Nelson, who have teamed up in various situations over the years, may never have clicked more winningly than they do on Three Things of Beauty , a quartet date that is Barth’s first non-duo or non-trio album in more than a decade. Ranging from Tyner-esque intensity to Basie-like cool, he is at his most expansive, while Nelson plays with a depth of expression he lacked earlier in his career, and bassist Ben Street and drummer Dana Hall provide sumptuous support. The album is so engaging, it deserves a title upgrade: How about Ten Things of Beauty?

Barth’s title cut reveals his detail-oriented approach as a composer. The song begins as a wistful, gently flowering ballad, but gains speed and power, keyed by Hall’s springy, propulsive strokes and fueled by some of Nelson’s hardest-edged lyrical playing. “The Rushing Hour,” another original, radiates bright expectation through serial changes in time, tempo and tone, building on and shadowed by subtle Afro-Cuban accents.

Three Things of Beauty is full of surprises, including a nifty spin on Monk’s “Bemsha Blues” via Barth’s “Be Blued.” The band moves from Modern Jazz Quartet-like ease to bluesy swagger on John Coltrane’s “Big Nick,” and luxuriates in deeper-pocketed tradition on Barth’s “Wise Charlie’s Blues,” dedicated to a departed friend. The album is bracketed by standards: a dashing uptempo reading of “My Man’s Gone Now” and flowing rendering of “The Song Is You.” The latter’s graceful reharmonization shows off the light touch that is one of Barth’s calling cards.