Artist: Roberta Piket
Title: West Coast TrioWest Coast Trio
Release Date: April 6th, 2018
Release Number: TNR-011
Liner Notes by Bob Bernotas
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Featuring: Roberta Piket piano, Darek Oleszkiewicz bass, Joe La Barbera drums, Larry Koonse guitar (Tracks 3 and 8), Billy Mintz percussion (Track 5)
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The album ranges gracefully across Piket’s far-flung musical interests, alternating between American and Brazilian standards, jazz compositions by Chick Corea, John Hicks, and George Shearing, and a couple of her finely wrought originals. While the setting is her musical comfort zone, West Coast Trio is Piket’s first trio-centric session in a dozen years, and judging from the ensemble’s unfettered and loose-limbed interplay she clearly reveled in the highly responsive company.
“I definitely feel the most at ease in a trio,” Piket says. “What the trio means to me is intimacy. There’s such a directness of communication between the three musicians. It’s all about interaction and communication and not knowing what’s going to come next. It’s the essence of jazz.”
West Coat Trio opens with Piket’s mid-tempo burner “Mentor,” an intricate harmonic lattice that bears unmistakable traces of Richie Beirach, particularly the pedal point from his tune “Pendulum.” Not a particularly prolific composer, Piket ended up liberating “Mentor”’s bridge and spinning it off into the briskly swinging “A Bridge to Nowhere,” which adds L.A. guitar great Larry Koonse into the mix.
Koonse, who like La Barbera and Oleszkiewicz is a longtime faculty member at Cal Arts, also contributes some gorgeous playing on Shearing’s bebop anthem “Conception,” a devilish harmonic steeplechase that the quartet navigates with style and panache. Listen to the way that Koonse doubles the melody, evoking the bright Shearing sound created by the vibes doubling his piano. The album’s other quartet track features drummer Billy Mintz adding some tasty percussion on “Flor de Lis,” a ravishing version of a luscious samba by the great Brazilian singer/songwriter Djavan. Piket picked the tune up from bassist Harvie S, her bandmate in a trio with Billy Mintz that also serves as baritone saxophonist Virginia Mayhew’s rhythm section.
“So many sambas are overplayed,” Piket says. “This one is refreshingly unexpected, with an interesting form. It’s also in the key of A major, which is unusual for a jazz tune.”
One of the album’s standout tracks is a poignant, caressing version of “My Buddy.” The 1922 Walter Donaldson ballad has mostly fallen out of the jazz canon in recent years, though this quietly wrenching performance should put it back in rotation. Chick Corea’s “Humpty Dumpty” doesn’t need to be resuscitated, but it’s not one of his frequently covered compositions. Piket fell in love with it as a teenager listening to his Mad Hatter LP, and the trio nails the complex metric modulations with style. If there’s a true revelation on West Coast Trio, it’s “Yemenja” by the late, lamented John Hicks, an undersung jazz giant. Piket learned the tune from his 1980 trio album Hell’s Bells (Strata-East), and she captures the mysterious grandeur of the piece, which feels like an homage to McCoy Tyner.
“I knew that record long before long before I met John, who I got to know in the late 1980s when I moved back to New York,” Piket says. “He was such a lovely person, really supportive of young musicians. At the time people weren’t hiring too many women. He was more supportive than most male musicians.”
Part of what makes West Coast Trio such a consistently entertaining session is the liminal zone the musicians occupy, teetering between the security of familiarity and the frisson of discovery. Piket had played with La Barbera a few times previously but knew his work mostly through recordings, and she assembled the repertoire thinking about “tunes I knew Joe would sound great on,” she says. “With musicians as mature and developed as Darek and Joe we got that communication very quickly. They have great ears, are amazing intuitive musicians, and were really in sync with me from the beginning. I really love Darek’s sound, that deep, woody approach to the bass.”
While Piket has distinguished herself as a leader over the past two decades, she gained invaluable experience over the years performing as a sidewoman with many of jazz’s greatest figures, such as David Liebman, Rufus Reid, Michael Formanek, Juini Booth, Lionel Hampton, Mickey Roker, Eliot Zigmund, Benny Golson, and Ted Curson. She’s also toured and performed with some of the most interesting musicians in European and American improvised music, including drummers Klaus Kugel and Billy Mintz, and saxophonists Roby Glod, Petras Vysniauskas, and Louie Belogenis.
Born in Queens, New York in 1965, Piket inherited a passion for music from both of her parents. Her father was the Austrian composer Frederick Piket, who made significant contributions to both the musical liturgy of Reform Judaism and the concert hall with works performed by the New York Philharmonic under conductor Dimitri Metropolis. From her mother, Cynthia, she absorbed the glories of the American Songbook, learning by ear the tunes of Porter, Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, and Berlin (as well as accompanying lyrics).
A chance encounter with an album by bebop pianist Walter Bishop Jr. (1961’s Speak Low) ignited her love of jazz piano trio, and she went about learning all the standards on the record. Around the same time, she became fascinated by the 20th-century classical recordings from her late father’s collection. She attended the joint five-year double-degree program at Tufts University and New England Conservatory, graduating with a degree in computer science from the former and in jazz piano from the latter. After a year as a software engineer, she realized that her calling was music and returned to New York, where an NEA grant set her up to study with pianist Richie Beirach.
Drawn to both straight-ahead and free improv situations, Piket made her recording debut on an album by jazz legend Lionel Hampton. Around the same time, Marian McPartland heard her at the Thelonious Monk Composers Competition and invited her to appear as a featured guest on NPR’s Piano Jazz, Piket’s first of three appearances on the show. She made her recording debut as a leader on 1996’s Unbroken Line (Criss Cross) with Donny McCaslin, Javon Jackson, and Michael Formanek.
Never content to repeat herself, Piket has pursued a disparate array of projects, including the electric band Alternating Current, the free improvisation trio with Mintz and saxophonist Louis Belogenis, and the neo-classical-meets-free-improv Nabokov Project, which sets poems by Vladimir Nabokov to music for piano, violin, mezzo-soprano, percussion, and speaker.
She performs regularly with the Scott Reeves/Jay Brandford Tentet and the Virginia Mayhew Quartet, in duo with Mayhew, and with Mintz’s quintet/quartet with saxophonists Tony Malaby and John Gross, and bassist Hilliard Greene (with whom she also plays in his In & Out Ensemble). In recent years, she’s focused on honing her solo piano performance, an impressive practice documented on 2012’s Solo and 2015’s Emanation (Solo: Volume 2).
Her most recent album, 2016’s One for Marian: A Tribute to Marian McPartland, was a loving homage to one of her most prescient champions. A revelatory sextet project featuring Steve Wilson, Virginia Mayhew, Harvie S, Bill Mobley, and Billy Mintz, the project celebrates McPartland’s underappreciated body of work as a composer while offering Piket meaty material as an arranger. Given her zigzagging track record, it’s not surprising that Piket pivoted on West Coast Trio.
“The last few records I’ve done had more of an agenda with regard to the repertoire,” she says. “On the solo records I was thinking of ways of challenging myself. I wanted to choose pieces that force me to stretch, not just a bunch of standards. This is the first record in a while where I found a bunch of tunes that are fun to blow over. Our only agenda was to make some beautiful music.”
“Pianist and composer Roberta Piket stands among the elite minds of modern jazz”
-National Public Radio
“She’s quietly been working on form and conceptual matters in the spirit of devoted explorers like Chick Corea and Richie Beirach.
–Ben Ratliff, The New York Times