Album review…Aaron Diehl, “The Bespoke Man’s Narrative” (Mack Avenue, 2013)

With a well-balanced album of inventive originals and faithfully executed standards, celebrated young pianist Aaron Diehl debuts with a solidly swinging album on Mack Avenue Records that will appeal to a wide range of listeners. Performed by a remarkably empathetic ensemble, the album champions a classic, historically informed approach to the jazz piano trio that foregrounds Diehl’s consummate technical and expressive prowess.

The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, Mack Avenue Records MAC 1066, 2013. Personnel: Aaron Diehl, piano; David Wong, bass; Rodney Green, drums; Warren Wolf, vibraphone. Tracks: Prologue; Generation Y; Blue Nude; Moonlight in Vermont; Single Petal of a Rose; The Cylinder; Stop and Go; Le Tombeau de Couperin [III. Forlane]; Bess, You Is My Woman Now; Epilogue. Recorded at Avatar Studios, New York.

Beginning with three originals, Diehl establishes his compositional voice and the collective voice of his ensemble as the primary foci of the album. “Generation Y,” the second track, is one of Diehl’s finest compositions on the record. Cast in straight-ahead swing and featuring impressive improvisatory talents of vibist Warren Wolf, the group achieves one of its high points in intensity, interplay, and energy on this track. Although readily apparent throughout, Diehl’s command of the piano on the subsequent track, “Blue Nude,” warrants particular mention. Despite the endless possibilities at the keyboard that his impressive technique afford him, Diehl opts for artful restraint in his improvisation, giving preference to melodicism and coherence over ostentatious pianism. The result is a thoughtful, finessed, and expressive refinement that hints at the pianist’s expansive knowledge of historical styles and performance aesthetics. This knowledge is on full display in Diehl’s rendering of Duke Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose.” Of all the standards on the album, this track is the most noteworthy and provides one of the highlights of the entire record date. This hauntingly beautiful performance of Ellington convincingly demonstrates Diehl’s skill as a pianist and practitioner of classic jazz repertoire. The Fazioli Concert Grand augments the sensitivity, depth, and warmth of Diehl’s playing, which here perfectly balances contemplation and forward momentum through careful manipulation of rubato and dynamics.

A welcome change of mood, “The Cylinder” is a light and humorous, original blues that once again showcases Wolf. Next, in one of the album’s most enjoyable and spirited moments, on “Stop and Go” the band breaks out and, with a startling tempo change, Diehl bursts into a frenetically paced improvisation, pouring out successive waves of quintessential bebop at an amazing velocity, enlivened further by groupings of rhythmically displaced motives…all the more impressive because he performs the lines at times in unison with both hands. Diehl’s music—like that of all skilled artists—demands that we accept and consider it on its own terms; however, listeners will be hard-pressed not to compare his intricate and deftly navigated solo on this track with the work of Oscar Peterson and Phineas Newborn, Jr.

The album ends with two well-crafted piano trio tracks that position Diehl firmly within the canon of classic jazz pianists. The rhapsodic adaptation of the third movement of Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, like his cover of Ellington, demonstrates Diehl’s equanimity of approach and comfort in both neo-classical and straight-ahead jazz realms. Listeners should also pay particular attention to Diehl’s impressive arranging skills here: he imbues Ravel’s themes with freshness and energy, maintaining a high level of engagement and inventiveness through the eleven-minute track.  An equally lush treatment of Gershwin’s ballad “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” from Porgy and Bess, presents the standard with elegance and contemplative lyricism, that, in its final moments, develops into the more heightened urgency and passionate insistence characteristic of the song’s lyrics. As a coda to the album, in “Epilogue” Diehl brings back the melody with which he began—a well-crafted outro that neatly ties up and puts the finishing touches on the album.

Diehl’s playing exudes confidence, intention, and maturity that belie his young age. His pianistic skill and mastery of the swinging repertoire impress throughout the album. For those looking for an accessible, straight-ahead jazz album, this record is a sure bet and Diehl an equally sure fit as composer, improviser, and instrumentalist—sentiments that Stanley Crouch’s presence and persuasive rhetoric in the liner notes and Diehl’s impressive roster of awards only amplify. Casting himself as the Bespoke Man, Diehl custom-tailors his compositions and arrangements to this solid ensemble with careful precision and to great effect. Some listeners, however, may find the finessed and expertly coiffed qualities of the record a bit unnerving: at times, the trouser pleats seem a little too perfectly creased and the pocket squares positioned and folded with too much attention to geometric symmetry. In part, this derives from post-production that seems to have dampened the overall sound of the record, perhaps flattening and washing out some of the wrinkles and stains that can lend a record its distinctiveness. That notwithstanding, there is no denying Diehl’s adept pianism and that his record provides many moments of instrumental mastery, compositional aptitude, and dynamic group interplay. The Bespoke Man’s Narrative presents the incipient gestures of what promises to be an expansive, fluent, and ever-developing career for Diehl.

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