This review appears in the May 2012 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.
By David R. Adler
Pianist Aaron Diehl is a young Juilliard graduate, a scholarly devotee of Fats Waller, James P. Johnson and even earlier figures. His work on record reveals absolutely no debt to hip-hop, indie rock, the avant-garde or any other de rigueur influence. Yes, Diehl is a proud jazz classicist, with an impeccable touch and deep musical insights. His Mack Avenue debut, The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, is due out in late July, so it’s a good time to listen closely to his previous effort.
Though his interests stretch back to ragtime, Diehl is not a “trad” player. His rapport with bassist David Wong and drummer Quincy Davis on “Pick Yourself Up” and Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys” brings to mind the crisp, strutting swing of Miles Davis’ 1950s quintet. His effortless-sounding arrangements and use of the trio as a canvas recalls Ahmad Jamal. His restraint and elegance as a soloist is in the tradition of John Lewis and the Modern Jazz Quartet (the addition of vibraphone on the forthcoming album makes the MJQ parallel even clearer).
Although Diehl’s chops are considerable, he unleashes them with taste, in ways we wouldn’t expect — his fills on the original ballad “Dorsem” and the ultra-slow opener “The Player’s Blues” are good examples. Not that he has anything against speed: his original “Tag You’re It!”, with its train-like feel (and slight resemblance to “Seven Steps to Heaven”), is the most bracing virtuoso showpiece of the date. But the George Shearing classic “Conception” gets a slower treatment than usual, and Diehl hints at Monk’s influence with certain gestures of repetition and counterpoint. His wide octaves — a frequent device during solos — highlight the piano’s flawless intonation, not to mention the disc’s fine recording quality.
Two tracks feature a different rhythm section, but mainly we hear from Wong in a pronounced soloing and melodic role, and Davis in great form on sticks and brushes. There’s a curious effect at the start of the album, where ambient crowd noise nearly drowns out the band, then disappears in time for the second blues chorus. It’s likely a post-production trick, but it gives the impression that Diehl and his trio succeeded in quieting a loud room — an easy scenario to believe.