Improvised Meditations & Excursions/Eastern Exposureby John Lewis
Celebrity and obscurity mix on these two piano trio dates -- one a sublime essay on the art of improvisation, the other a bit of a curiosity that dabbles in Eastern exoticism. John Lewis' Improvised Meditations & Excursions, from 1959, provides an intimate portrait of the celebrated pianist and composer. It's a remarkable piece of piano jazz that quietly transforms basic song elements into richly detailed landscapes. This is most apparent on "Yesterdays," "September Song," and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," where the listener's familiarity with these standards is pleasantly subverted by the pianist's harmonic genius and improvisational imagination. Lewis shares space generously with his bassist and drummer, allowing for a total performance from the trio. Eastern Exposure is a rare recording from a pianist best known for his long tenure as musical director of Chicago's Second City theater. Despite lacking the use of two fingers on his left hand, Fred Kaz, who was 25 at the time of this 1960 date, is a technically impressive player. Drawing inspiration from Middle Eastern tonalities, he produces results here that are only mildly intriguing. The problem is a lack of cohesion between the pianist's Eastern-influenced themes and the sections of straight-ahead, swinging solo space. The alternation between the two is frequently jarring. To be fair, though, Kaz has a couple of good pieces in this set and he is in the tough spot of having to follow Lewis' exquisite dissertations. Like Lewis, Kaz is working with a skilled, attentive, and involved bassist and drummer.
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