Jazz Pianist Benito Gonzalez Leads Stellar Sidemen in Thrilling Rainy Days Label Debut ‘Sing to the World’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

This writer is a strong advocate for the St. Petersburg, Russia label Rainy Days, which in its short history has recruited top talent both from its home country, and the U.S.  A key figure on the label is pianist Benito Gonzalez, who has both supported others and is now releasing his label debut as a leader, his sixth album overall.  If the name is new to you consider that over the past two decades Gonzalez has been the pianist for Kenny Garrett, Azar Lawrence, and Pharoah Sanders. Gonzalez was named a Steinway & Sons artist in 2020.  

Gonzalez will be the first to tell you that he’s listened to plenty of McCoy Tyner, both pre-and post-Coltrane. In fact, the title track of Sing to the World, with its harmonic invention and thrust, is influenced by two McCoy Tyner tunes, “Fly with the Wind” and “Song of the New World.” And, yes, listening to Gonzalez brings us right back to that fertile early ‘70s period of McCoy’s Milestone tenure albeit with an emphasis of the trumpet as the lead voice rather than the saxophone. In fact, his previous album as a leader was his acclaimed tribute to McCoy, the Tyner-endorsed Passion Reverence Transcendence with Essiet Okon Essiet and drummer Gerry Gibbs. 

Gonzalez assembled an impressive team of collaborators, including bassists Christian McBride and Essiet Okon Essiet, drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts and rising Russian Sasha Mashin, with trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Josh Evans.  

Gonzalez’ rhythmic, percussive style is heard throughout from the opening “Sounds of Freedom” which he says is inspired by troubling situations in his homeland of Venezuela as well as the U.S. and Russia and Payton bursts out on fire from the get-go.  Others include the trio-rendered “Views of the Blues,” a burner inspired by Coltrane’s open-sound sensibility of playing the blues, and the moving, lyrical “Offering,” also trio rendered, featuring a terrific McBride solo.  The same is true for the faster tempo, equally expansive “Visionary,” where both McBride and Watts solo.

In addition to his originals, Gonzalez adds to the set list two compositions that have never been recorded by their composers: Roy Hargrove’s soulful mid-tempo “Father” and Jeff “Tain” Watt’s beauty “412,” both featuring Payton in full flight.  Gonzalez calls “Father” one of his favorite songs on the album. As for the Tain tune, Gonzalez learned it when the two were both teaching summer jazz camp at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC). Payton appears again in the buoyant, Horace Silver-like “Smile” with McBride and a most lively Mashin anchoring the rhythm as they do for the title track which returns to the trio format in, as mentioned, a more Tyner-like approach. 

The frenzied post-bop “Flatbush Avenue,” inspired by the late Kenny Kirkland, follows with the same trio cast as the blazing hot Evans takes the trumpet lead and Mashin, already a leader on Rainy Days, shows his impressive chops. “Colors,” another pulsating piece, closes as McBride and Mashin push the leader who somehow finds a balance between a heavy percussive and more delicate approach all within the context of the piece as he does throughout this brilliant project.

It’s been a little more than a year now since McCoy Tyner passed and likely his many fans have retreated to much of his vast catalog in that time.  Of course, Tyner’s music lives on, but his spirit is very much present here too. This is an unrelenting, lively session that further heightens Gonzalez’ growing status. 

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