Pianist and composer Ezra Weiss recently released a live album, Before You Know It with his sextet. Far from hoarding the spotlight on his album, Mr. Weiss shows a huge respect for his fellow band members, writing sensitively for the whole ensemble and creating a sound that is richer than it would have been had he hogged the spotlight. His melodies are engaging, memorable and thoughtfully placed.
The first piece on the album, Winter Machine, gives a nice introduction to Weiss’s style, introducing the sax and horns with an air of mystery. The clear melodic themes are a precursor to a style that will carry through the album. The next piece, The Crusher establishes Weiss’ ability to write beautifully for his band members; in this case, showcasing trumpeter Farnell Newton beautifully. The only drawback of this number is its tendency to wander off course, possibly losing the listener.
Don’t Need No Ticket slows the album down a bit with a beautiful piano introduction by Weiss. A sense of expectation builds until Farnell Newton’s restrained trumpet comes in. John Nastos’ alto saxophone solo around the midpoint continues to build in intensity while developing melodic themes. A Foggy Day is a new mysterious take on an old classic. It grabs the listener with hints of the original melody and a sense of longing, but tends to get bogged down in tangents. The end brings brings back earlier sensibilities and reestablishes the melody, grabbing the listeners it may have lost mid-piece.
Five A.M Strut begins to turn up the heat with a broody but playful melody. One can almost see the lone street lamp over the dark street. The grit and playful melody immediately draw the ear, but like some of the other tunes on this album, it loses steam midway as the performance meanders. A rendition of John Coltrane’s Alabama takes its lead from Five A.M. Strut, continuing to turn up the intensity. Weiss rumbles away on the piano with the forboding of an incoming storm as the saxes and trumpet play breezily above. Tenor sax player Devin Phillips solos beautifully about halfway through. His solo ends with some overblowing, which adds tension, but takes away from the overall feel of the piece. There are perhaps other, more musical ways to add tension. While pushing your instrument to its limits can be fun for the player, it can be incredibly off-putting to the listener. It is important to balance between experimentation and listenability when playing for the public.
The title song, Before You Know It caps off this album with a lovely rambling dedication to Weiss’s two-year old son. It’s a great way to dial the intensity down at the end of the album, but make no mistake, this is not a throwaway piece. The music is bluesy, deeply soulful and features each of the musicians to full advantage.
Over all, this new album is original, full of interesting takes on old standards and fresh new ideas. There is a slight tendency of the music to get lost in itself. This can be a function of philosophy. The music brings up the question “Is art an end in itself? Or is it, as Modest Mussorgsky stated, a means of addressing humanity? Either way, Weiss has addressed his audience beautifully and with feeling. We’ll leave other questions to the philosophers.