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David Kikoski with John Patitucci and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts: Almost Twilight

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December of 1999 was a busy month for pianist David Kikoski. He recorded as leader of his own trio, as a member of a trio with Ralph Peterson and Gerald Cannon, and as a sideman in Conrad Herwig’s quintet. While all three of the resulting CDs display his rich, inventive improvising style, the first also documents the latest stage in his development as an imaginative composer.

For colleagues on Almost Twilight, his third Criss Cross recording in two years, Kikoski chose bassist John Patitucci and Jeff “Tain” Watts (Watts had also played on Kikoski’s previous release, Maze). The three of them went into the studio after a week of performing the album’s material at Sweet Basil. The result is a textbook example of empathetic trio interaction, where each member’s contributions enhance those of the others. Kikoski’s exploratory harmonic ventures are not only supported by his bassist, but are motivated by him as well. And Watts serves a similar rhythmic function for his rhythmic explorations. Kikoski’s uncliched compositions, some of which reach fruition as they are being performed and reflect the input of all three players, typically utilize unconventional forms and a variety of metrical approaches-the funky, down-home “Blues In the Face” standing out as a notable exception. But for music that’s so insistently challenging to the players, it’s also surprisingly accessible to listeners. Although it may saunter or race down unexpected paths, its progress seems perfectly logical and appropriate.

Kikoski also appears on drummer Ralph Peterson’s trio recording Triangular 2, which displays a spirit of interplay similar to that of his own album. But the substitution of Peterson and bassist Gerald Cannon and the fact that there’s only one Kikoski composition give this CD an entirely different flavor. Although Kikoski’s work still exhibits a swirling urgency at times, especially on his own “Games” and Peterson’s fiery Latin “Red’s Brazilian Fantasy,” the more conservative nature of the other tunes-two standards and five originals by Peterson or Cannon-dictates a more conventional role for the pianist. The original compositions are uniformly attractive in their own right, however. Cannon’s uptempo “Jean’s Dream,” his lovely ballad “Peri,” Peterson’s grooving “Blues for Jones,” his moving tribute to Art Blakey “I Remember Bu,” and his aforementioned Latin chart are also fitting vehicles for improvisation in an updated hard bop mode. The combination of Cannon’s booming, propulsive bass lines and Peterson’s churning, intricate rhythms generates fierce drive and rhythmic richness. Though different in intent from Almost Twilight, this effort succeeds by its own standards.

Conrad Herwig’s Unseen Universe finds Kikoski in the piano chair once again, but this time in a setting with yet another set of expectations for its pianist. This time the leader wrote all the tunes and arranged them for a front line consisting of three outstanding soloists-himself on trombone, Alex Sipiagin on trumpet and flugelhorn, and Seamus Blake on tenor and soprano saxophones. Although Kikoski shares solo space with the others, he takes advantage of his opportunities to demonstrate his prodigious versatility, from his darting block-chord phrasing on the minor blues “All Is One” to a singing, Keith Jarrett-like chorus on the wistful “Rebirth.” Jeff Watts is again the drummer, with the superb bassist James Genus on board this time. Herwig has long been known for his virtuosic control of his instrument and he exhibits it liberally here. Blake and Sipiagin also prove to be extraordinarily fine modern mainstream soloists. With an excellent group of players and a solid collection of fresh, original charts, Herwig’s latest is a winner.