**** - 4 Stars
Hal Galper's Rubato playing style, which evolved over a period of years before the pianist made it the centerpiece of his group's performances, has confounded some listeners with its complex, overlapping rhythms where the musicians seem to be playing independently of one another. Yet those who focus on the interaction will recognize that it is just another method of giving familiar songs a new dimension. Galper's trio with bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop went into the studio without preconceived ideas about any of the pieces played, producing stunning results. George Gershwin's "Embraceable You" opens as an extended improvisation that barely hints at the theme until the performance is nearly over, with Galper's long, elaborate lines complemented by his rhythm section's off-center accompaniment. The remaining tracks are all jazz compositions. The late bassist Jimmy Garrison's "Ascendant" is not common fare, and opens by showcasing Johnson's terrific chops backed by Bishop's crisp brushwork, with the leader's darting piano added later. Galper worked with the late Sam Rivers in the '60s, so it is hardly surprising that the saxophonist's "Melancholia" has long been a part of his repertoire. In his notes he shares that his slower rendition of it was to convey his sense of loss after Rivers' death. The Rubato method works well in this time-tested piece, gradually building in intensity. The contributions of George Shearing have been somewhat overlooked, as though "Lullaby of Birdland" is his only composition that mattered. Galper reminds listeners that Shearing's intricate bop vehicle "Conception" remains a challenge to jazz soloists, and the trio's brilliant reconception of it extends its value into a new century. Sonny Rollins' "Airegin" has long been a jam session favorite, though the trio's approach slows it down in the introduction while adding to its drama and exotic air before launching into a wild interpretation which constantly shifts both tempo and focus on this jazz standard; Johnson's edgy arco bass adds a nice touch. Finally, Galper's "One Step Closer" blends the influence of Brazilian-like harmony with a cascading, cyclical theme into a majestic performance. Hal Galper's Rubato playing style isn't for new or casual listeners, it demands total focus to appreciate its nuances. But the rewards are infinite for jazz fans who give it their undivided attention.