Sunday, November 4, 2018

APA Premiere Series, Part 2: Billy Test displays a genial, searching mentality in originals and trio leadership

Billy Test is anchored temporarily in Cologne, Germany, an Indianapolis sister city.
In trio performances, some jazz pianists give in to woolgathering when they improvise, letting the bassist and drummer take care of keeping the pulse. This habit can project their personality distinctly.
But except in the hands of genius, the result may have the listener longing for more centeredness, especially in repertoire from the Great American Songbook.

That explains why I was taken immediately by Billy Test as he opened his first set Saturday night in the American Pianists Awards' Premiere Series at the Jazz Kitchen. The vehicle of choice was Cole Porter's "All of You," with Test laying down an unaccompanied introduction before bassist Nick Tucker and drummer Kenny Phelps joined in.

The scope of Test's intro was admirable in itself, but after the trio launched into the tune by the most durable Hoosier songwriter ever, there was even more to like. The pianist waxed rhapsodic in his solo, but maintained time and style with his colleagues. He never forgot to swing, and he landed on cadences and significant phrase ends with the precision of a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier.

Tucker took the first of several fine solos in the hourlong set, played before a capacity crowd. Phelps, on brushes, contributed tasty exchanges with the APA finalist near the end. Test was surpassingly generous to his excellent sidemen, both well known to jazz fans around here. Tucker played the melody line of the set's first original, "Spinning," in flawless unison with the pianist, then had another significant solo, faithfully playing upon the long phrases of Test's composition.

Better than any pianist I can recall in this series since Adam Birnbaum, Test was excellent at partnering intensely with Phelps. After some back-and-forth in the psychological tour de force of "Mother's Day With Freud," with Tucker mediating creatively in between, Phelps delivered a fiery solo, punctuated by a rare shout of "Ow!" during the brief pause he allowed himself. He may have been venting and sublimating some id energy (Freudian terms aren't amiss in this case) recently stirred up by a devastating fire at his studio. It was good to see him back behind the kit exhibiting his usual sensitivity and measured storminess.

Late in the set, there was just one other item from the mainstream popular repertoire: Frank Loesser's "Never Will I Marry."  Test gave an amusing, erudite account explaining the song's obscurity before the trio got down to business with it. The performance spotlighted the tenderness of his tone and his pearly ballad touch.

Test took a far-ranging solo in Richie Beirach's "Soul," sometimes piquantly adding a harmonizing line in the right hand. He played one unaccompanied original — "To Be," dedicated to the phenomenal Egberto Gismonti — never losing focus as the texture thickened, tossing off repeated-note passages and cascading runs.  The set concluded with another original, the oddly named "Stagnant Waters," featuring more of that fascinating interplay with Phelps, another masterly Tucker solo, and a beautifully shaped coda.

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