I’ll listen to Jonathan Crayford play anything – any instrument, any line-up, any context – because he’s a seriously good musician. But my favourite way to hear him is at the piano in charge of a trio. I’m not sure if this is because it’s where/how he is best suited or simply because that’s how I first heard him. I’m not trying to take away from Crayford the multi-instrumentalist, band member and sit-in guy, but it’s Crayford the pianist/composer and leader of a trio that I’m most interested in.
So his new album on Rattle, Dark Light is a treat, and not just because it’s all Crayford compositions and a trio format – the rhythm section is Ben Street (bass) and Dan Weiss (drums). I’ve already gushed about Weiss’ most recent album, my pick (already) for 2014’s Album of the Year so this album has arrived right as I’m in the middle of checking out past Weiss solo albums and finding whatever I can that features his insightful, impactful, intuitive playing.
The title track of this album is a very fine example of what Weiss can offer – a stately piano ballad with just enough of a dark undercurrent, those waters stirred by Street’s strong rudder – is kept interesting across its nine-minute duration due to Weiss’ way with time-keeping and accenting. His bass drum riding along seemingly inside the pattern of the upright bass until it’s time to colour – then we hear strikes from the foot that go against the ever-so-slightly agitated ride and cross-stick rhythm. Flams and rimshots never take over from Crayford’s melodic aims, they always accentuate and at just the right moments the drums fall right back for the bass to move the song forward. No one player is the star here, nor across the whole album, it’s team work all the way, but Weiss has a way of rocking back just lightly on a creative jazz-funk seam, similar to the very fine work of Idris Muhammad. Then add in the colour touches that people like Chris “Daddy” Dave and Mark Guiliana have brought to modern jazz.
Rita Finds The Light is a rolling piece of nearly-funk-within-jazz that then falls away to re-start as sensitive ballad with Weiss adding touches of Steve Gadd-like fills as Street sits back on big single notes, then blending chord voicings with Crayford.
The songs on this album – the tunes, the pieces – they rise and fall, they twist and turn, they move – always.
Galois’ Candle owes as much to Ludomyr Melnky and James Blackshaw as it does to any of the obvious “jazz” players, Impetus then flips right back into everything you might expect from a piano-led jazz trio, Crayford’s voice out front in that way Oscar Peterson had when leading his trio; the same calm feel to this ballad, the bass almost the lead instrument but for sitting in behind; the drums barely there – but their tracing of a groove, their soft punctuation a crucial element in the end.
Bikes In Spaces stridently pushes the groove, a subversion of the noir-ish shapes found in jazz; a stripped back version of some of the John Zorn ensembles, Bob James-like too.
And then the closing track, Panties, reveals a very delicate touch. It’s a hint back to Crayford’s work in film scores, in setting up moods.
Dark Light is to my ears a masterpiece. The best piano-trio album I’ve heard in an age. The finest playing from all three players; it’s all you could hope for – and then some. And then, yes, it’s another very strong release from the always-caring, always lovingly-packaged Rattle imprint. Long may they continue finding and nurturing the best and releasing records of this calibre into a world that – allegedly – doesn’t care for the packaged album as an art form any longer.