Recent Recordings by Area Musicians
Pete Siers is the type of musician whose restless curiosity and attention to detail have made him a master of many different styles of percussion. Siers has been a leading musical force in the Ann Arbor and Detroit Metro area for many years now and is well-regarded nationally by many well-known musicians, quite a few of whom he has performed with in and out of the area. Whether he is working in a straight-ahead jazz setting with a small group or big band; playing timbales with his outstanding Latin group, "Los Gatos;" traveling around the world with Marcus Belgrave's traditional Louis Armstrong tribute group; or playing contemporary dance music, Siers' quiet but assertive personality and sense of responsibility for the direction the music takes always inspire his fellow players and the musical result.
For his latest recording project, aptly titled Those Who Choose to Swing, vol. II (PKO Records), Siers has selected the perfect trio-mates for this kind of project. The title is reminiscent of Gene Lees' biography of Oscar Peterson, The Will to Swing; and who would be better on a hard-swinging, straight-ahead project like this than the Peterson-esque pianist, Larry Fuller? The nationally-acclaimed Toledo native was the final pianist with the Ray Brown Trio, and though he is an original and much more than a Peterson knock-off, it is not surprising that Ray Brown had the utmost respect for Fuller's gifts. The bassist is Siers' close friend and musical alter ego, Paul Keller, the founder of PKO Records and a leading figure on the Ann Arbor jazz scene. Keller's ubiquity, which to musicians can often be a negative, is a positive in his case. Keller is that rare person who combines world-class musicianship with a keen business and entrepreneurial sense, and whose fairness and good nature command the respect of musicians and audiences alike.
This recording is, unabashedly, a hard-driving, swinging album in the long, storied tradition of the jazz trio genre. Two qualities that one usually associates with hard swingers are a readily apparent musical joy and a strong work ethic. Anyone who has seen any of these three perform can attest to the musical joy that pervades their playing. Local audiences, especially, who have often watched Siers and Keller perform have seen this joy written on their faces and in their movements and reactions. Jazz musicians, in general, possess strong work ethics in order to perform at the level that the music requires, but these three display that quality at its highest level, not only in the quantity and quality of the work that they do but in the way that they do it; the way they swing. And it is definitely a choice they make.
Siers asserts his musical personality not only with the particular groove he establishes but in the subtle ways he works with the development of the intensity of the groove — the ways he moves it forward or backs it off. On the great old chestnut, "My Melancholy Baby," Siers begins with some tasteful brushwork under Fuller's statement of the verse. The intensity of the swing moves subtly forward through Keller's playing of the main melody and Fuller's solo – by the time Siers picks up sticks on the second chorus of the piano solo, the groove is in full swing, before backing off for the bass solo. Paul Horn's composition, "Ecstasy," begins with drums soloing over a vamp and involves a different king of swing, not as driving but a kind of swing/Latin groove. Siers toys with the swing on the ride cymbal, with Latin fills on the toms. The groove gradually evolves into a driving swing and then backs off again into the original feel. The development is natural, never contrived. Bill Evans' great tune, "Very Early," is usually played as a waltz but is played by the trio in "4" with a Latin feel. I particularly like Siers's crisp, understated cymbal work and the way he creates interest by changing up the feel slightly from section to section, giving the tune unexpected lifts. He ends the tune with strong solo work over the vamp. The groove Siers plays on "Jitterbug Waltz" is especially nice, and complementary to Fuller's style. Like many great drummers, he definitely has his own cymbal sound — crisp, yet delicate on this cut also.
The swing grooves that Siers establishes are very complementary to Fullers's hard-driving style of playing. Fuller has great blues chops of all kinds. On R & B pioneer Joe Liggins' boogie tune, "The Honeydripper," he begins with a taste of boogie and jumps right into a driving Peterson type of blues. On the Basie tune, "Swingin' the Blues," he goes through a variety of blues styles, including stride and some wonderful chordal improvisation which he displays elsewhere on this recording, particularly tasteful on his solo on "Sunday."
There are many examples of Siers's fine brushwork on this CD, both swinging and delicate. On "Never Let Me Go" his brushes give movement to this beautiful, slow ballad but he never succumbs to the tendency of many drummers to start swinging too much after the head of a really slow ballad. Another very tasteful example of his brushwork is heard on "When You Go." It's interesting that the energy level here is lower than what you might expect from the lone Ray Brown composition played by this trio. It's one of Brown's more lyrical tunes. Fuller sets just the right introspective mood with his solo statement on this soft Latin melody.
Keller's solo work shines throughout this album, from his authoritative rendering of the melody on "My Melancholy Baby" to outstanding solos on that tune, "When You Go," "Ecstasy," "Louisiana," and "Sunday." Keller's solos are always wonderfully melodic — you almost expect to hear him singing along, as many bass players do; Keller doesn't need to — his lines sing. His joyful, buoyant personality always pours through his playing – those who know him can easily picture him playing when listening to his recorded performances. The bass and drums duet, "Mood Indigo," is largely a vehicle for Keller as he plays the line and solos with double-stops throughout, including his accompaniment to Siers' tasty brushes solo.
An unexpected treasure on the album is "Charlie's Tune," the only piece featuring a different rhythm section. Pianist Ellen Rowe's beautiful composition is dedicated to Siers's young son, Charlie, with lyrics written and sung by Sunny Wilkinson. Wilkinson's tender lyrics to this lilting waltz (most children's tunes seem to work best in this format) are done in the same spirit as Gene Lee's wonderful lyrics to "Waltz For Debbie" and capture perfectly the mood of a parent's feelings for his/her child without being sappy (not an easy thing to do). The song is an excellent vehicle for the lyrical quality of Wilkinson's voice. Rowe's accompaniment and solo are just right — understated and lovely. Siers's accompaniment is straight and unadorned, allowing the delicacy of the tune to shine. The bass player on this cut is another of Ann Arbor's world-class bassists, Kurt Krahnke, who is also the bass player in Siers's Latin group, Los Gatos. Krahnke is a different style player than Keller and he puts his round-toned, legato-style playing to good effect on this piece.
Both Ann Arbor and Toledo have produced more than their share of first-rate jazz musicians over the years and this latest offering by Pete Siers and his group is an excellent example of this long tradition of great jazz music.
|Buddy Budson is a Detroit area pianist and sometime jazz writer. For many years he has performed with vocalist Ursula Walker.|
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