Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Aaron Diehl Trio plays the Velvet Note in Alpharetta, GA

Aaron Diehl, Paul Sikivie and Lawrence Feathers at the Velvet Note
If you bother to take the thirty-minute drive from downtown Atlanta or Decatur to a strip mall in Alpharetta you will be amply rewarded for your efforts. Located in a twenty-foot storefront at 4075 Old Milton Parkway, two doors from a barber shop, is perhaps the best jazz club in the greater Atlanta area.

The Velvet Note, Acoustic Living Room,  Alpharetta, GA
The Velvet Note was a wild dream of a club that started in 2011 with the notion that if you provide people with an intimate space, build into the space top quality acoustics, and feature the crème de la crème of jazz artists, people will come to hear the music. That music would be jazz in all its wonderful diversity. The idea of a successful jazz club seems to be an oxymoron, but manager Tamara Fuller has somehow seemed to make the concept work and work with style.

On Saturday March 26,2016 the featured artist was the great young piano phenom Aaron Diehl and his trio. The band featured Lawrence Feathers on drums and Paul Sikivie on upright bass. In speaking to Mr.  Feathers after the first set he told me the band has been together for about five years. As with any fine piano trio the symbiotic relationship between the three players is a must and this trio had no shortage of symbiosis, often stopping and starting magically like finely choreographed dancers in precise synchronization.

The first set started with the Benny Carter standard “When Lights Are Low.” Mr. Diehl is a dashing young man who almost looks like he could be a model for Armani suits. His playing is as elegant as his haberdashery and his bandmates were equally outfitted in suits and ties. Mr. Diehl is one of those players who, when he sits down at the keyboard, you know takes his art very seriously. He has beautiful facility with both hands which he displayed with unpretentious artifice. His touch can be as light as the most ruminative Bill Evans or as stride-full as Willie “The Lion” Smith. Mr. Sikivie’s plucky bass solo was a nice contrasting voice to Diehl’s thoughtful comping. Diehl also employed repeated two-handed block chord progressions that were very effective.

Aaron Diehl's Space Time Continuum Mack 1094
On his imagistic original “The Flux Capacitor,” from his latest album, Space Time Continuum, Diehl and company quicken the pace and supercharge the audience into the musical time warp. A representation of the excitement and fantastical delight of the Robert Zemekis Sci-fi Comedy Back to the Future from 1985. Diehl’s syncopated left hand creates a memorable ostinato against his probing right hand explorations. Sikivie and Feathers shuffle along at De Loren cruising speed. Mr. Feathers keeping the rapid pace with his ride cymbal, snare and fluttering hi-hat.

Back to the Future Promo Poster
An ardent student of the history of the music, what better way than to show us his own twenty-first century way of re-imagining Fats Waller’s 1942 composition “The Jitterbug Waltz.” Even those in the audience who didn’t know the name of the tune recognized the music’s sauntering melody. Diehl used the piece to produce beautifully flowing glissandi, maddeningly precise repeated motifs showcasing pianistic mastery that was a treat to behold. The trio performed as an organic whole as Diehl expanded on his improvisations around the core of the melody with ever more adventurous expansions. Diehl also used dynamics to great effect as he went form loud and tumultuous to soft and gentle and his whim dictated.  Mr. Sikivie played a particularly welcomed bass solo.

The gentle “Spring Can Really Hang You Up,” made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, was played as sensitive, almost reverential ballad. It is fascinating to watch Mr.  Diehl up close as he plays a ballad like this. His hands are so long and slender and he often settles them tentatively over the keys in anticipation of his next idea or chord, but in a way that makes you feel he himself is not sure where they may land next.He often has his head bowed and his eyes closed as he seems to be channeling the meaning of the song through its unspoken lyrics. A wonderfully evocative rendition.

Diehl and company played another of his originals “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” which he says was inspired by a painting by Mondrian. The song featured some nice solo trap work by Lawrence Feathers who leads the group into a bebop burner. Diehl seems comfortable with a myriad of styles from bebop to stride, hard bop to crossover.

Piet Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie Woogie"  1943

As if to demonstrate the breadth of the pianistic tradition, the group rolled right into Thelonious Monk’s staccato “Green Chimneys” and then onto Bud Powell’s frenzied “Un Poco Loco” both performed with astounding proficiency. Leathers stick and rim work on “Green Chimneys” was particularly impressive. This group can really run on high octane, pushed by Diehl’s fleet fingers, Sikivie’s relentlessly walking bass lines and Feathers subtle but driving trap work.

Diehl chose a song from the underrated pianist John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet fame, “Milano” to do his only solo piece of the first set.  This almost classically inspired piece of music is a miniature masterpiece of shimmering beauty. Diehl played the song at first with a sensitivity that Lewis would have admired, then broke into a stride-like saunter altering the mood from moody to magical.

The trio ended the set with a modal blues driven medley, sprinkled with tidbits of many famous jazz standards throughout which they played to a bustling ovation. Clearly Aaron Diehl is, as one patron put it “the real Diehl,” an elite pianist in a crowded field.  He has mastered a myriad of styles and has an abundance of ability. At age thirty we can look forward to a long and rewarding career from this excellent pianist.

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