Larrys on-fire piano leads a world-class quintet in a soaring, swinging exploration of matters of the soul and spirit. Slide Hampton says, Man, Larrys playin like hes on a mission! Joe Ford, McCoy Tyners brilliant altoist, and soulful Ray Codrington, trumpeter for Andrew Whites JFK Quintet, are up front. Solo, quintet and trio-with-strings settings showcase some of Willis best ever composing and arranging. A stunning piano (the acclaimed Fazioli) plus spacious, crystal-clear acoustics contribute to the best piano sound Ive ever captured. (#09932)
The Rick Schmidt Strings
IF YOU ENJOYED SANCTUARY, BE SURE TO CHECK OUT
All About Jazz - New York
Larry Willis, for too long a time unjustly under-recorded as a leader, happily has found a home as Mapleshade Records music director for the past 12 years. The Maryland based label has afforded the veteran New Yorker a multitude of opportunities to demonstrate his imposing talents as a pianist, composer, arranger and producer, but Sanctuary is easily the best of these efforts to date. The album of spiritually motivated music captures Willis at the height of his powers in a variety of situations that graciously draw the listener into his brilliantly conceived music.
The opening The Maji, a cheerful composition for jazz quintet (featuring fellow Fort Apache members Joe Ford and Steve Berrios on saxophones and drums and DC veterans Ray Codrington and Steve Novosel on trumpet and bass) immediately makes clear the leaders considerable capability for creating memorable melodies in even the most conventional of settings. Sanctuary is a beautiful piece by Willis for trio and the ten-piece Rick Schmidt strings, adeptly arranged by Ford. The pianist masterfully arranged his own Good Friday for soprano sax with piano and strings to portray a mood that is mournful without being maudlin.
On Brother Ed, Willis creatively crafts a satisfying new melody, featuring Fords alto and Codringtons trumpet, utilizing the familiar chord changes from Wayne Shorters Speak No Evil. Sanctuarys centerpiece is the stirring orchestration by the leader of the traditional hymn There Is A Balm Gilead for piano, strings and the emotive tenor voice of Artie Sherman.
Codringtons Thank You Lord, a prayer without words, is another enjoyable outing for quintet, served well by Novosels relaxed bass line and Berrios compelling mallet on tom tom rhythm. Willis displays his skill as a solo pianist on his three-movement arrangement of a gospel song from his youth, Were You There. Fallen Hero, the pianists moving memorial to his late brother, featuring another of Fords sensitive string arrangements, is a fitting finale to this poignant and affecting date.
Powers of Two is an extraordinary undertaking by Willis (who is joined on the session by longtime Jimmy Lyons drummer Paul Murphy). Comprised of eight spontaneously improvised duets, the date showcases his imposing but unpretentious virtuoso technique, as well as an amazing ability to build marvelously musical structures without the benefit of prepared material.
While the beautiful sound Willis coaxes from his instrument at times recalls McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor and Herbie Hancock, the eight tracks are all uniquely personal - worthy of compositional refinement and future exploration. Murphy proves to be a fine foil and at times a convincing creative catalyst, helping to inspire facets of Willis talent that are all the more impressive considering their lack of prior documentation.
Down Beat: "Best CDs of 2003"
Willis and quintet submerge themselves in all things spiritual on this collection of originals and traditional hymns. Several cuts feature Willis in a trio setting with the soaring Rick Schmidt strings, arranged and conducted by sax man Joe Ford. Ever the master of clever chord substitutions, Willis re-harmonizes each verse of "Were You There," a solo piano performance.
There's nothing musically that Larry Willis hasn't mastered--unless it be Celtic or zydeco. His eclecticism has run the gamut from rock to opera. He's written symphonic scores and spent seven years as keyboardist for Blood, Sweat & Tears. But first and foremost, Willis is a jazz musician, as evidenced by his latest release, Sanctuary. Most of the tunes are by willis; all have religious titles or religious dedications. but you would never know that thematic conception (with the exception of the traditional "A Balm in Gilead" which is sung) if you heard the album in a blindfold test. What emerges is that Willis is an amazingly talented writer for strings, a hard-swinging pianist and a fine creator of moods as a composer. He has surrounded himself with first-rate talent: Joe ford, various saxes (also a good string arranger); Ray Coddrington, trumpet; Steve Novosel, bass; Steve Berrios, drums; and the Rick Schmidt Strings, a nine-piece complement that stays in tune.
Willis is the Music Director for this audiophile jazz label for over a decade and has participated in many of their acclaimed recordings. In this session he displays his compositional and arranging chops in several different musical environments - solo piano, quintet, with vocalist, and four of the eight tracks with a nine-piece string section. In common with albums recorded by several different jazz artists recently, Willis has chosen a spiritual renewal sort of theme here, as suggested by the album title tune. He wanted to convey the feeling of a place of quiet, solitude and healing. This intent will be clear in some of the tune titles, but specifically: the Maji is about the epic journey of the three wise men, Were You There is a Baptist church hymn, and Fallen Hero honors Willis late brother - a teacher who was killed by one of his severely deranged students. Willis spirituality theme seems somehow more genuine than some of those other similar CDs. He plays a Fazioli piano, which seems to have a more fitting tone for jazz than the typical Steinway. The sonics have great presence and realism, par for the course from Mapleshade. Tracks: The Maji, Sanctuary, Good Friday, Brother Ed, A Balm in Gilead, Thank You Lord, Were You There?, Fallen Hero.