For pianist JOAN HICKEY, the new Between the Lines (on the Seattle imprint OA2 Records) is a triumph of another sort: because the only previous CD under her own name barely got distributed, this will be her debut for most listeners. For me the disc is something of a revelation for other reasons. As I've come to expect from her, Hickey holds together this forceful but supple quintet in part by providing solid foundations for the soloists with her comp work, which relies on emphatic chording. The difference comes in her own solos, which in the past have almost always struck me as pedestrian -- her heavy touch and blocky chords, assets in the rhythm section, don't necessarily make for a versatile or even interesting solo style (a weakness shared by predecessors like Tadd Dameron and Horace Parlan). In Hickey's bands the other soloists have usually carried the weight, and given the strengths of her sidemen on this disc -- trumpeter Tito Carrillo, saxist John Wojciechowski, bassist Dennis Carroll, and drum dynamo Dana Hall -- that easily could've happened again. But Hickey holds her own: sounding relatively relaxed, she spins thoughtful, measured single-note melodies, modest and simple in their strength. They provide an unexpected bonus to her other assets: her arrangements, her talent for corralling disparate sidemen, and her willingness to seek out unexpected chords.
The arrangements deserve extra notice, because they carry the disc -- the virginal ballad "With a Song in My Heart" goes dark with a rumbling rhythmic undercurrent and extended harmonies; "My Funny Valentine" gets a reggae beat; "The Man I Love" develops a lopsided lope in 6/4 time. They also spark the imaginations of the horn men: Carrillo sizzles, and Wojciechowski, still unknown to most Chicago listeners, sails far and wide with his throaty tenor. Hickey credits Carroll with assistance on some of the arrangements, but he shapes all the tunes with his playing -- his combination of tone, time, and imagination have made him one of the top bassists in the country. And Hickey steps out of the shadows to go toe-to-toe with all these alpha-male players. She calls the tune that opens the album "Herbris," and I think that neatly sums it up.