We all have it: that nagging list of things we’ve been meaning to get to, projects we’ve been thinking about for years, goals that we just keep putting off for another day. With The Time Is Now, pianist/composer David Hazeltine decides to finally seize the moment and bring one of his long-delayed dream projects to fruition. The new album, due out October 26 via Smoke Sessions Records, finds one of the top pianists of his generation forging an impeccably swinging partnership with two other masters: bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster.
As usual, it took a heady dose of reality to inspire Hazeltine to take this trio outing off of the back burner and bring it to life. Nearing his 60th birthday (which will coincide with the release of the new record), Hazeltine faced a health scare that forced a change in perspective. Realizing that there’s no time like the present, he insisted on finding a time in three very busy schedules when these great artists could share some time in the studio.
These men all come directly from the straight-ahead jazz tradition; though Hazeltine is a generation younger than his two bandmates, he spent many years working with such giants of the music as Sonny Stitt, Chet Baker, Eddie Harris, and Buddy Montgomery. He’s since become one of the leading torchbearers for that estimable standard, both on his own and through his work with the swinging super-group One For All. His efforts have made him one of the most-streamed straight-ahead jazz artists alive today, and he’s passing his knowledge onto new generations through his teaching, clinics and online workshops.
On this occasion, Hazeltine had no interest in reinventing the wheel, but set out to create amazing music from familiar ingredients – just as Carter and Foster have done throughout their remarkable careers. “I’ve always thought of creating music – and perhaps all art – as a way to impose order on a chaotic world,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to make beautiful the not always beautiful human condition, and I was so happy to finally have Ron and Al to do it with me!”
Those qualities are on full display throughout The Time Is Now, from the tasteful elegance of Hazeltine’s title track through the blistering closer “Signals,” a showcase for Foster’s crisp attack and mighty sound. While he had spent countless hours listening to both men’s work, and had a good deal of experience playing with Foster, Hazeltine faced a daunting task in writing for the trio – the three had, after all, never worked together as a band, and he’d only shared the studio with Carter on one other occasion.
“I wanted to do something new and push myself out of my comfort zone when composing and arranging for this recording,” he says. “I’d never recorded trio with Ron and Al and I knew that I wanted the music to be above all beautiful, swinging, and harmonically interesting, yet not overly arranged. That would allow the three of us to do what we do best: creating and improvising on a framework.”
After the opening track allows all three men to display their nimble agility, a joyful surprise comes in the form of the theme from “The Odd Couple,” reimagined as a wistful waltz. Hard to believe that the theme song from a 40-year-old sitcom could dance with such weightless grace, but that’s the magic of this gifted trio. Hazeltine then switches gears again, with a Latin-flavored twist on “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” that suggests the haze of a sweltering nightclub rather than the usual fog of remorse.
Foster’s lithe brushwork provides the shuffling foundation for a breezy take on “Cabin in the Sky,” while Carter’s robust walking is the strong but pliable spine of “Blues for Eddie,” Hazeltine’s tribute to one of his mentors, saxophonist Eddie Harris. “We all know that Eddie was one of the most innovative guys to ever play the saxophone,” the pianist says, “but he’s also one of the most under-appreciated. Most people knew him for his pop or funk tunes, like ‘Compared to What’ and ‘Listen Here.’ But live, he would play a lot of swinging jazz and people would leave scratching their heads. He was a different kind of performer than his reputation suggested.”
Hazeltine takes a solo turn at the piano for a sunset-shaded rumination on James Taylor’s “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight,” eloquently capturing the original’s desperate plea for companionship without a word needing to be sung. His triomates offer a comforting response with Hazeltine’s tender “When I’m Here With You.”
When discussing difficult situations or misfortune with his wife, Hazeltine is given to suggesting that they “parlay” their bad luck into something better. That verbal habit provided the tongue-in-cheek title for “The Parlayer,” perfectly matching its sly, sharp-witted humor. Rarely since the days of its composer has Duke Ellington’s immortal “In a Sentimental Mood” been embodied so well as when these three masters imbue it with such aching, heartfelt sentiment.
Leading up to the brisk barrage of the aforementioned “Signals,” Hazeltine’s “Muse of Montgomery” pays homage to another important mentor from the pianist’s formative years, pianist Buddy Montgomery. The youngest of the famed Montgomery brothers (following Wes and Monk), Buddy spent more than a decade living in Hazeltine’s native Milwaukee. “When I was growing up, Buddy played six nights a week for years in a hotel lounge called the Bombay Bicycle Club. A bunch of us would go down there on almost a nightly basis and I got to know Buddy pretty well, and became a major influence on me. That tune is my representation of the way that Buddy would approach a tune.”
Finally having the chance to hear these three masterful musicians conversing together, one may regret that it hasn’t happened sooner, or more often. But in the hands of such visionary and skilled artists, The Time Is Now is a notion that’s always true – no matter the time.
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