Seattle based pianist Bill Anschell has created a tremendous body of work over the the past 30 years, as a composer, musical director, and pianist. He returned to Seattle in 2002 after 25 years abroad and formed a relationship with Origin Records, releasing more than a dozen records both as a leader and co-leader. Whether composing and performing original pieces, or interpreting standards ranging from Cole Porter to Lennon/McCartney, Anschell has consistently upheld a rare standard of excellence.
Anschell's musical personality can perhaps be best experienced within the confines of Tula's Jazz Club, an intimate jazz spot in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. He typically performs with two separate combos, a quartet that performs his own works, and a standards trio featuring trail blazing bassist Jeff Johnson, and wonderfully talented drummer D'Vonne Lewis. The trio has been performing on and off since 2007, and have achieved an intuitive, almost telepathic musical relationship that produces moments only attained through the one mindedness of the piano trio format. They perform in the area of 80 standards, never play from a set list, and are subject to the momentary whims of Anschell's inventive curiosity. At long last, the trio has released a definitive collection of standards aptly titled Shifting Standards on the Origin label.
This studio recording closely resembles the unabridged collective spirit the trio achieves in a club setting, recording it organically, set up close together without the benefit of isolation booths. The result is a conversation in spontaneous invention, exquisitely recorded by Reed Ruddy at Avast Studios in Seattle.
Anschell chose his mates for the project well, in the persons of Johnson and Lewis. Johnson, one of the most musical of bassists drenched refreshingly in the oral tradition, is a true innovator in the art of the trio. His work with the Hal Galper Trio, both as a bassist and composer has helped revolutionize the piano trio, by using a rubato approach that creates an elasticity to time. He as well has been a driving force in the trios of transcendent pianists Jessica Williams, and Chano Dominguez.
The uber talented Lewis, a fourth generation Seattle musician, is a perfect reactionary participant, gathering the energy tossed about by the unbridled melodicism of Anschell and the absolutely unique and identifiable sound of Johnson. The music communicates a joy and contentment between the three that pulls the listener in, seeking the same.
For the opener, the band gets inside Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia," all the while alluding to the Latin feel of the piece, without ever engaging it. The trio revolves around the harmony as a common center, with Johnson the perfect counterpoint to Anschell's playful treatment of the melody. Johnson never falls prey to the theme's signature bass line as one might hear in standard versions, including the piano trio interpretation from Bud Powell, with Curly Russell's bass line providing a definitive foundation for Powell's meanderings from the original theme. While Anschell clearly leads the way, his playing is like a musical delta to where the musical waters flow through and beyond into the tidal wash of sound provided by Johnson and Lewis.
The compositional variance piece-to-piece on Shifting Standards keeps the listener engaged in classic melodies that can serve as a harmonic anchor in one's conception of the music, all the while creating more and more slack in the creative line before it is once again taut and firmly in place. Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" is a case in point. While some of the other tunes on the record may score higher on the hip meter, the trio swings this piece into submission, with Lewis providing a bounce that accentuates this joyful romp. Lewis bears artistic resemblance to the great Roy Haynes here, his playing shifting between artful restraint, and hard swinging liberation.
Leonard Bernstein's "Some Other Time" is certainly one of the most beautiful melodies ever written, so beautiful in fact, that much like Coltrane's "Naima," interpretation can be a delicate matter. The exquisitely graceful melody and harmony ebbs and flows like the tide, providing brief moments to embellish perfection. Much like pianist Bill Evans on his classic recordings of the Bernstein classic over the course of his career, Anschell soulfully sways back and forth within the harmony to state just enough of the melody in his soloing to create a reharmonization that is stunningly beautiful. The listener is helplessly submerged in a whirlpool of sentimentality that is insatiable.
Mal Waldron's "Soul Eyes," encapsulates Shifting Standards perfectly. It feels like a casual, yet deep conversation between friends that have achieved a comfort level in terms of truth, honesty, and loving respect. Johnson accentuates his passages with an elegant vibrato that is yet another aspect of his musical persona that is distinctive. Anschell's compositional prowess is clearly heard here through his approach to interpretation. He has a unique ability to connect the dots harmonically in such a way that draws a very thin line between the intuitive art of improvisation, and the artful craft of composition. The stylish Lewis is reactive to his mates, yet shedding light on the musical path before them, a wonderful give and take that has evolved over a decade of bonding with this perfect trio.
Jazz music has become, in many ways, like classical music in the modern age. It is largely taught in institutions, its standards given treatment much like the symphonic music of the 18th and 19th century masters. This record is more about the oral tradition, a social music without charted territory, a place where musician and listener can go to a peaceful place where human emotion can thrive, reflect, hold something close, and then let it fly away in the autumnal breezes of time.