by Ian Mann
January 23, 2013
"Dragonfly" represents a worthy addition to Gee's catalogue and shows one of UK jazz's best pianists more than holding his own alongside two very talented Americans.
Jonathan Gee Trio
(ASC Records ASC CD 131)
Jonathan Gee has been one of the UK’s top jazz pianists for over two decades now but still remains somewhat underrated. A hugely versatile musician he has played with a host of top British, European and American musicians across a variety of jazz styles. He’s appeared on these web pages before as a member of trumpeter Jay Phelps’ group in reviews of both the album “Jaywalkin’” and of a highly successful live performance at the 2011 Lichfield Real Ale, Jazz & Blues Festival. That same year he’d already given an even more impressive performance at Cheltenham Jazz Festival as the leader of the UK based trio accompanying veteran US tenor saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. The frail Sanders relied heavily upon Gee and his colleagues Mark Hodgson (bass) and Gene Calderazzo (drums) and all three rose to the occasion with Gee in particularly sparkling form. They were a great support to the ailing Sanders and the mutual respect between the saxophonist and his younger colleagues was palpable.
However Gee had been on my jazz radar long before 2011. I’d seen him play at Brecon Jazz Festival a couple of times back in the 1990’s (if memory serves it was firstly with Dylan Fowler’s Frevo and later with saxophonist Ed Jones) and I still have a copy of his enjoyable 1998 release “Your Shining Heart” (also ASC) made with his then regular trio of bassist Steve Rose and drummer Winston Clifford.
Fast forward to 2012 and Gee has come up with an excellent new trio album “Dragonfly”, a set of seven Gee originals plus an interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s “We See”. Gee is a long term Monk devotee and was once part of UK saxophonist Tony Kofi’s Monk project. “Dragonfly” presents Gee’s “American Trio” featuring Joseph Lepore on double bass and the great Nasheet Waits at the drums. The music was recorded on two separate visits to Brooklyn, New York in 2007 and 2010 and the trio also performed at the 2009 London Jazz Festival. The release of “Dragonfly” will be supported by a Jazz Services supported UK tour during February 2013 featuring Gee and Lepore and with old friend Gene Calderazzo deputising for Waits at the drums ( the dates are listed at end of this review and on our news pages).
At a little over forty minutes “Dragonfly” is roughly the length of an old vinyl LP. The mood throughout is one of bustling,vigorous three-way interaction, there’s absolutely no flab on this lean and sometimes mean recording, there’s an urgency about this music that speaks immediately of its New York origins.
Opener “Beyond” is a case in point, Gee produces torrents of notes and chords as Waits chatters and rumbles restlessly around him. Lepore acts as both anchor and inspired soloist as he enjoys a lengthy double bass feature mid tune. But it’s the scintillating dialogue between Gee and the dynamic Waits that really grabs the attention. I’ll admit that Lepore’s is a new name to me but I’ve heard Waits in a number of contexts and also thrilled to his playing as a member of French multi reeds player Michel Portal’s group at the 2011 London Jazz Festival. He’s certainly in superb creative form throughout this album.
The title track relaxes the pace a little with Lepore’s resonant, dexterous bass and Waits’ brushed drums prominent in the tune’s early stages. Gee’s initial contribution is a sparse statement of the theme but as the piece progresses he gradually ups the ante, casting his improvisational net wider as his colleagues respond in kind. Vocal whoops of joy and discovery can be heard buried in the mix, something that sums up the spirit of daring and joie de vivre that imbues the trio’s music making.
“Black Ball” features more intense but inspired conversation between Gee and Waits, the drummer busy but effective.
Introduced by a passage of solo piano “Tortadilla” initially demonstrates a more lyrical side to the trio with Waits’ shimmering cymbal splashes a particularly atmospheric touch. Later the trio stretch out on a simple, joyous, blues based Jarrett like melody ( there’s some vocalising again as if to emphasise the point) with memorable features for Waits and Lepore.
Gee’s piece “Cream of Mandarins” originally appeared as the title track of a 2004 album recorded with the Italian rhythm section of bassist Danilo Gallo and drummer Alessandro Minetto (“Tortadilla” appeared here too, Gee has a habit of recording his tunes in more than one context).
Here the pianist solos feverishly in conjunction with Waits’ relentlessly inventive drumming, pausing for breath only towards the end of the tune as Waits temporarily drops out.
“Yellow Ball”, like the earlier “Black Ball” initially appeared in a very different context on “View from the Pocket” a 2008 electro-jazz album that Gee recorded with Finnish trumpeter Mika Myllari under the group name Northern Star People. Here it’s relaxed and playful with a breezy interaction between piano, bass and drums. Much of Waits work exhibits a delightfully light touch with the brushes but he remains bright, busy and inventive.
The trio’s version of Monk’s “We See” updates Monk’s vision to the demands of the contemporary piano trio with considerable success. Gee skirts and darts around the melody with aplomb displaying an almost boyish enthusiasm as Lepore and Waits react to his every move. Lepore’s bass is splendidly propulsive and the piece includes a surprisingly thoughtful extended drum feature.
The closing “Cicada” first appeared on “Good Cop, Bad Cop”, a 2001 album by a quartet co-led by Gee and trumpeter Damon Brown. Here it’s another piece of excellent three way conversation with Waits again prominent in the mix and with Lepore also featuring with a typically agile solo. There’s a pleasantly relaxed feel to the playing that seems to act as a release of tension after the intensity of much of the earlier improvising.
“Dragonfly” represents a worthy addition to Gee’s catalogue and shows one of UK jazz’s best pianists more than holding his own alongside two very talented Americans. Hopefully it’s an album that will help to establish his name even more firmly on the international jazz map.
Following his superb and often combustible contribution here it’s unfortunate that Waits will not be available for the forthcoming UK tour. However if anybody can ignite the same kind of percussive fires then surely it has to be Gene Calderazzo.
JG3 UK Tour w Joseph Lepore (bass) and Gene Calderazzo (drums):
17th @ Bristol, Hen & Chicken (http://www.jazzata.com)
19th @ Altrincham, tbc
20th @ Edinburgh, The Jazz Bar (http://www.thejazzbar.co.uk)
21st @ Nottingham Jazz, Bonington Theatre (http://www.jazzsteps.co.uk/live_2013_gee.php)
22nd @ Wakefield Jazz, Wakefield Sports Club (http://www.wakefieldjazz.org)
23rd @ Brighton, The Verdict (http://www.verdictjazz.co.uk)
24th @ London, Pizza Express Jazz Club (http://www.pizzaexpresslive.com)