For his third Posi-Tone album and fourth overall, Theo Hill moves beyond the piano-trio format with the addition of a vibraphonist, Joel Ross. It makes a big difference, as does Hill’s decision to use Fender Rhodes and synths. Where 2017’s Promethean and 2018’s Interstellar Adventures were impressive showcases for Hill’s pianism, Reality Check allows him greater opportunity to explore his ideas; he clearly relishes trading melodies with a fourth player.
In that sense, the new release has more in common with Hill’s debut, a Live at Smalls session featuring saxophonist Dayna Stephens. Apropos of the expanded format, Hill’s compositions for Reality Check—he wrote all but three of the 10 songs—call for a larger canvas than the trio affords him, and he’s at his most inventive, and excited, when he and Ross engage fully.
“Afrofuturism” leads with Ross’ vibes, spacy and dreamy; a minute in, he fades out completely, there’s a momentary silence, and he returns with Hill in tow. By the time the rhythm section kicks in—bassist Rashaan Carter returning from Interstellar Adventures and drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. from Hill’s first two—the tune has blossomed, orchestral in its breadth. “Pressing the Issue,” penned by Mulgrew Miller, one of Hill’s acknowledged heroes, gives Whitfield a chance to let loose, setting the pace for the zippy runs that find Hill and Ross scampering every which way. Stevie Wonder’s “Superwoman,” one of the other two covers on the record, proceeds with a lilt, the vibes bringing to the arrangement a pensive, blithe feel.
Now that Theo Hill has given us two trio albums and two quartet sessions, it’ll be intriguing to see where he takes it from here.
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