Craig Hartley: Books on Tape, Vol. 1

Like many a debut album, Craig Hartley’s Books on Tape, Vol. 1 is designed to flaunt the artist’s considerable technique and stylistic breadth. But unlike even many seasoned veterans, the pianist and his trio (Carlo De Rosa, bass; Henry Cole, drums) get away with the strutting because it never feels like their main purpose: Diversity, range and chops are embedded into their collective personality but so are touch, empathy and inspiration.

The breakneck opener, “Dial 411” (for piano mentor Gary Dial), packs a certified wallop, but once it’s disposed of Hartley gets down to the business of providing an even mix of nuanced, well-constructed original ballads and impressive swingers. The two variations of his “Just for Me,” the latter featuring trumpeter Fabio Morgera, are different enough to suggest an impressive open-endedness to his approach. Both the sole standard (“My Foolish Heart”) and the ringer, Hartley’s “I Should Love You More” (with vocalist Dida Pelled), pay tribute to tradition without resorting to clich├ęs.