Jazz Pianist/Composer Eric Reed Goes Reflective Vs Energetic On ‘For Such a Time as This’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Pianist/composer Eric Reed delivers one of the year’s most deeply spiritual, soulful works with For Such A Time Like This, written against the backdrop of the pandemic, social unrest, and anxiety of a new election. Reed, for more than three decades now, has built his reputation as one of the most influential and beloved jazz musicians, with close to 30 albums as a leader. He can dazzle and swing with the best of them, but especially on this work, the notes, and chords that he hits strike deep emotionally. Reed is playing what he’s feeling – reverie for the lost as in “Walltz,” for Wallace Roney, and in the four pieces comprising the gospel section, the crux of, or at least the indelible takeaway from this fine project.

An important part of this story dates to 2008, when, after two decades in the jazz epicenter of New York City, Reed relocated to Los Angeles, his home as an adolescent and teenager, where he reintegrated into the local scene. It was there in mid-March, with the shutdown triggered by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that Reed began to conceive For Such A Time As This to be recorded in L.A. with local musicians. At the end of June, he was ready and assembled a gifted, young quartet in the studio, adhering to full physical distancing and masking protocols, with remote production by Paul Stache. So, while the accompanying names may not be familiar, the ever so purposeful Reed explains, “These are great musicians, each with some quality that I wanted to utilize. My generation came up under mentorship and apprenticeship – from Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis, Clark Terry, who all believed in hiring young people. That’s where I come from, I’ve come by it honestly, and it’s something that I believe in doing.” (Note: He could have added Miles Davis to that list – hiring Tony Williams at age 17 and Herbie Hancock at age 23, for example.)

Reed’s connection to drummer Kevin Kanner several years ago was though pianist Gerald Clayton, and Kaner, in turn introduced Reed to Australia-born bassist Alex Boneham at a jam session Kanner runs at an L.A. Tenor and soprano saxophonist Chris Lewis – “a laid-back, quiet dude who turns into a killer when he puts that horn in his mouth” – initially came to Reed’s attention during a master class at Temple University, where Lewis studied with Jazz department head Terell Stafford, and woodwind masters Dick Oatts and Tim Warfield.

These youngsters bring fire from the outset on the first two quartet numbers, “Western Rebellion” and “Thelonigus (For Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus),” both Reed originals. The former is an affirmative line depicting the feeling and vibration of L.A.; the title draws from a group led during the 1970s by master pianist-composer Cedar Walton, to whom Reed paid tribute on his previous Smoke Sessions outing Everybody Gets The Blues. “Thelonigus” layers Monkishly spacious intervals like those found in Mingus’ “Peggy’s Blue Skylight,” about which Reed relates this anecdote about the beginnings of the lock-down – “I was walking down the street, and a couple was walking towards me, and these folks almost jumped in the bushes to avoid being too close to me. The wide intervals symbolize people jumping away from each other, which is counter-intuitive to human behavior.”

These energetic pieces are woven in with reflective ones. In fact, Reed begins the album with a solo piano vignette entitled “Paradox Peace’ to capture that weird initial feeling so many of us felt when seeing roads, shopping centers, and city streets bizarrely empty at the onset of the pandemic in the Spring (and unfortunately, again now).  Following the two quartet tunes, he returns in solo mode for the standard “Stella by Starlight,” which he renders elegantly, proceeding at a relaxed pace, holding certain notes to give it added emotional depth, He then turns it up a couple of notches with an animated trio take on the standard “It’s You or No One.” 

Reed vowed to practice daily during the pandemic, playing many standards, trying different interpretations with the result being those two that made the album.   The two pieces seem to serve as preludes of sorts for the solemn “Walltz,” a heartfelt tribute to the late trumpeter Wallace Roney (one of the first Jazz casualties of COVID-19), whom Reed met during his late teens and played with periodically over the years, most notably during a memorable week at Catalina Bar & Grill after his return to Los Angeles.  Lewis plays a gorgeous soprano solo in honor of Roney, the Miles Davis protégé. 

“Bebophobia,” is interspersed between the ballad and gospel sections. Bebop lovers will recognize it as a contrafact of “Cherokee,” the tune associated with both Bird and Clifford Brown. This time Lewis makes his statement on tenor via an undiscovered original line that the iconic bebop tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards (who hired teenaged Reed for more than a few Los Angeles gigs during the 1980s) might have played during bebop’s glory days.

Then, eight tracks in, we get to the gospel section which concludes the album. The gospel section has been a frequent custom of Reed’s over the past 15 years as his father pastored a Baptist church in Philadelphia and Los Angeles. These are borne out of the murders of blacks and the ensuring unrest about racial injustice during the summer.  Reed explains, “The messages of ‘We Shall Overcome,’ ‘Come Sunday,’ and the ebullient ‘Hymn of Faith’ go hand in hand.” His original composition “Make Me Better,” sung by the soulful Henry Jackson, “puts a fine point on everything I’m hoping and wishing for –that I will be made better by this experience, and that I will encourage other people to be better as well.”  These are all solo piano pieces with Jackson’s vocal giving the project a special crowning touch. Reed brings the trio back for the rousing blues of “The Break” before taking us to church on solo piano for the closer, “Hymn of Faith,” rife with exclamatory, optimistic notes, capping off this deeply personal work.

 

 

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