Sunday, October 20, 2013

John di Martino's Trio "Turnaround": A Master Accompanist Shines in the Spotlight

John di Martino photo by Ralph A. Miriello  2013
The composer/pianist John di Martino has a reputation among vocalists in the know. The word is if you have a project and want to do something special, get this guy to arrange and play on your record. His well-deserved reputation for being the consummate accompanist/arranger comes from a deep and abiding love and respect for the lyric of a good song.  A superb technician, John’s training with two pianists Jimmie Amadie and  Lennie Tristano, and later briefly with the saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, gave him a deep rooted sense of  time, space and the judicious use of notes. But it was listening to vocalists that his mother would play for him as a youngster in Philadelphia that made him deeply sensitive to the lyrics and the emotional impact they could have on a song. Tristanto would make di Martino sing the solo parts of great horn players to learn phrasing, the key to emotional content. It was a lesson that stuck .

John took his talent and his love of lyric and found work in the then thriving Atlantic City casino scene of the nineteen eighties, where his trio became the house band for the now defunct Golden Nugget. He found himself playing behind a myriad of performers from Billy Eckstine to Keely Smith, sometimes backing the vaudevillian shtick of a comedian like Milton Berle or comping for R & B singer Chico DeBarge. Through it all he cultured a journeyman’s attitude, learning by necessity to play various kinds of music as the situation demanded. Instead of coping an attitude, judging  the music for its lack of complexity or creativity, he made it his practice to extract different values from each musical experience no matter how mundane. His love of Latin and Afro-Cuban music and his ability to absorb its rhythmic nuances landed him extended gigs in the bands of percussionist Ray Barretto and later the drummer Bobby Sanabria.  As the word spread about this unassuming pianist who could deftly make any singer sound better, di Martino became a sought after partner by vocalists, especially jazz vocalists. He has worked with Billy Eckstine, Jon Hendricks, Janice Segal, Giacomo Gates, Freddy Cole, Gloria Lynne  and Grady Tate to name a few. So it was with great curiosity that I decided to listen and review one of John’s recent works, this time as a leader on Turnaround  his recent cd  from 2012.

John di Martino Trio Turnaround KD10017
Turnaround is a piano trio album consisting of thirteen songs, mostly under-recorded gems that John believes are fertile material for further exploration. The trio is as tight and interactive as there is in jazz, with bassist Boris Kozlov and drummer Alvin Atkinson providing superbly intuitive accompaniment and support.  For a musician who is often found on the sidelines of somebody else's project, John’s out front playing on Turnaround  is a revelation.

On the title tune, Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround,” di Martino  plays the staccato theme with a touch of McCoy Tyner percussiveness and a fluidity that is impressive . Despite the Blues roots of this song, John  creates an outpouring of ideas that never cease to surprise and often stirs in the listener an emotional response. Atkinson’s gentle stick and rim work is sublime and Kozlov’s plump bass lines suspend in the air like billowy cumulus clouds hanging on a blue horizon creating a cohesive sound.

On the neglected , depression- era Jay Gorney composition, “Brother Can You Spare A Dime” John and his trio set off on a loosey- goosey jaunt reminiscent of the brilliant Hampton Hawes trio of the mid-nineteen fifties. The trio of Hampton Hawes on piano, Red Mitchell on bass and Chuck Thompson on drums, could make the music flow with an unvarnished honesty and supple  buoyancy that was unmatched creating magic. The carefree, inhibition to swing that Kozolv, Atkinson and di Martino demonstrate here is not easily achieved. The interactivity of this group is impressive, they create their own kind of magic. Boris Koslov’s walking bass lines echo some of Red Mitchell’s work and Atkinson’s brushes subtly maintain that steady, unerring swing with deceptive ease .Like Hawes, Di Martino’s playing emits an air of joyfulness that is genuine.

Mr. di Martino has a library of unheralded songs that he likes to draw from and one such piece is the soulful    “The Sun Died” from the Ray Charles repertoire. This bittersweet shuffle is made all the more poignant by Koslov’s mournful bass lines and John’s piquant keyboard work. The album features two Billy Strayhorn tunes. On “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing ” Mr. di Martino transforms Strayhorn’s lament to a more uplifting tale with his use of Brazilian rhythms. John’s washboard-liker ostinato piano lines in the lower register are perfectly counterpointed by Atkinson’s regimentally cadenced snare and cymbal work.  The song sways its way in a genteel dance of sorts, as Mr. di Martino’s rhythmic piano lines pitter-patter across the melody line. Eventually Mr. Atkinson is given a chance to stir things up with a brief but potent string of poly rhythms ending in a abrupt climax.

Another unearthed lost gem is “Moon and Sand.” John ‘s sensitive playing exemplifies  the beauty of this tender ballad.  Di Martino and Kozlov have a special chemistry playing off each other’s ideas, made possible by John’s knack for inspired arrangements. You can hear snippets of different vaguely familiar songs in John’s playing, the man is steeped in the history.  He meanders through  lines of a song each time  like he is rediscovering anew.

On Eddie Harris’s “Cold Duck Time” John captures the flavor of Harris’ funky style, with touches of the Ramsey Lewis sound surfacing in his playing. This is just plain get-down fun and has you nodding your head to the beat.  What becomes apparent is the versatility of John’s playing. He is a chameleon of sorts who has the ability to adapt to a variety of styles while retaining his own voice, but at its core his music possess an underlying sense of enjoyment, the man revels in playing music.

John taps into the Richard Rodgers songbook with “If I Loved You” and “Falling in Love With You”  giving both song's tender treatments. He also does a  stirringly l inventive turn on the movie theme to “Black Orpheus.”

The more contemporary Stevie Wonder composition titled “I Can’t Help It,” is turned sideways by arranging the song using a Latin rumba rhythm.  The composition features a fleet bass solo by Kozlov and the soft touch of Atkinson on toms and snare.
John di Martino and Bassist Ed Howard
photo by Ralph A. Miriello  2013

The album ends with other Strayhorn tune “Passion Flower” played as a somber dirge with Atkinson’s muffled toms recreating an Ellington-era sound. Di Martino’s piano is particularly romantic in its approach and. Kozlov’s arco bass solo is achingly evocative. “Sweet Pea” would approve.

With Turnaround, The John di Martino Trio establishes itself as a force to be reckoned with and John’s stature  as a superb pianist and arranger is further cemented  adding to his already confirmed credentials as one of the business’ best accompanist. 

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