Monday, March 24, 2014

Two New Ones: Amber Epp and Peter Zak

Pianist Peter Zak
I haven't had a chance to do CD reviews lately. Now that I'm on Spring Break, all 7 days of it( oy gevalt), I have some time to check out some new albums. One that I'm highly overdue to check out is pianist Peter Zak's latest for Steeplechase. "The Eternal Triangle" is a wonderful trio date which balances meaty originals with choice, not often played standards. The piano sound is nice and dark, and Billy Drummond's clear crisp cymbals are unmistakable. (I've recorded a number of Steeplechase dates with Drummond and his fiery swing always makes the music fun.) The always solid Peter Washington holds down the foundation and takes some excellent solos as well.

I was particularly intrigued with the slow blues called "Hittin' The Jug." I love all kinds of jazz, but it
is extremely grounding to hear an experienced group lay into a nice slow Bb blues. It's what we call "grown folks music." But there's also some satisfying, modern-leaning music; "George Washington" is a composition which begins with a fluid rubato intro followed by a hectic straight eight vamp tune that later gives way to swing, reminiscent of some of Mulgrew Miller's work( "Sublimity" from Miller's album "Work" came to mind). "The Hymnotist," another straight eight tune, has a lot of nice harmonies and bass lines which remind me of some of Geoffrey Keezer's writing. "I Believe In You," the standard from "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," is a pleasant medium bounce. Zak's has a lot of maturity and class in his playing; he's a true New York musician, as are Washington and Drummond. This is a well rounded album and hopefully this will put Peter Zak out in the public eye a little more.

Amber Epp
My thrill as a jazz educator is seeing my students grow into great musicians. During my two year run as a professor at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, there were a number of students who stood out as destined for success. In particular, vocalist Amber Epp( who now that I think of it, studied piano with me for a year) showed the drive of ten musicians all at once. Epp, who grew up in a Mennonite community in Steinbach, Manitoba, discovered jazz and Latin music and never looked back. Epp is well on her way to a professional career with her first all jazz album, entitled "Inside Outside." Epp has a voice which is clear, controlled, and in tune with phrasing that sparkles with rhythmic flavor and enough playful soul to make you say, "No, she couldn't be from that little town in Manitoba!"

Joni Mitchell's "All I Want" is a good way to kick off the festivities; although it's a subtle
reinterpretation, Epp gives it a nice samba flavor( I could see this one getting airplay). The selection of tunes is wide in variety; Epp loves the Latin tinge, so it's no surprise to hear a sultry rendition of
"Dos Gardenias"( Epp lived in Cuba for a short while; her Spanish is muy, muy bien, yo creo) or an impressive Portuguese version of "Chega De Saudade" with rocking samba guitar work from Larry Roy and energetic percussive bass playing from Steve Kirby( makes me miss playing with those dudes! We used to play every Wednesday Night in Winnipeg....). But there's so much more. "The Boy Next Door" features the not often heard "verse" of the tune, as well as great interpretation from Epp and swinging drumming from the great Quincy Davis. Epp can change moods on a dime: from the bluesy shuffle "Hey Now, " where she confidently struts her warm tone and popping rhythm, to the sensitive closer, Bernstein's "Some Other Time," where Epp rediscovers the bittersweet moments with a softer, muted sound. As one of her former teachers, I am bursting with pride about this recording; Amber Epp is going to thrill jazz lovers beyond Manitoba with this new CD.

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