Friday, May 21, 2021

Steeped in Big Apple small-group jazz, mid-career pianist makes bandleader debut

Ray Gallon brings well-honed  preparation to his debut.

With a resume including alliance with a wide range of jazz instrumentalists and singers, Ray Gallon has arrived at a signature style at the piano that prizes melodic invention and absorption of tradition in service to originality.

The works for piano trio on "Make Your Move" (Cellar Live) not only offer showcases of his elegantly surefooted articulation and skill at subordinating improvisation to composition, but also emphasize arrangements that ensure prominence of bass and drums. His compatible colleagues are David Wong, bass, and Kenny Washington, drums — like Gallon, both native New Yorkers.

Gallon's originals often have pre-existing songs in mind, and their conceptual freshness makes the new pieces occupy parallel terrain to what inspired them. The mainstream style sets some performances in the context of small-group swing, such as the disc opener, "Kitty Paws." The Gallon piece called "That's the Question" immediately suggested its potential adaptation as a jazz "vocalese," perhaps for a group like Duchess. (Once I read the accompanying press release, it turns out a solo vocal version with lyrics has already been done.)

Gallon's role model in jazz piano is explicitly Hank Jones, with one of the disc's originals ("Hank's a Lot") being a tribute to the esteemed maestro. The medium-tempo swing evokes Jones well enough, and Gallon's touch is also reminiscent of the Jones manner. 

But there are also hints of Thelonious Monk's eccentricity and innovative rhythmic breadth. Like Monk, Gallon draws deep from the Great American Songbook while also taking into account a quest for formal novelty. "Out of Whack" is such an instance here, and I also hear the Monk influence in the disc's title track, where conventional phrasing is subjected to harmonic surprises. In exchanges with the drums near the end, there are near-quotes of Monk's "Misterioso." More explicit bebop inspiration is elsewhere to  be heard in these fetching performances.

The pianist's melodic emphasis is seconded by bassist Wong, who takes a most tuneful solo in the slow blues "Craw Daddy." Wong is typically capable at getting straight to the point and delivering a tidy solo, as he does in "Hank's a Lot." And Washington consistently lives up to Gallon's praise of the drummer in displaying a "remarkable arrangement-oriented concept, his ability to bring every detail to light."

The disc's two standards depart somewhat from convention while respecting the originals: Jerome Kern's "Yesterdays" settles into a hard-driving groove, powered by Washington. The return to the theme is particularly deft, and the other standard — Victor Young's "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance" — also displays the trio's internal rapport in the way it gradually gathers force after Gallon's ruminative,  unaccompanied introduction. 


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