Awaiting the arrival of his first child while locked down in New York City during the pandemic were probably not the circumstances which pianist Ben Winkelman would ideally have chosen for writing new music. Nonetheless, taking inspiration from the anticipation of fatherhood and the feeling of isolation acted as the catalyst for the nine compositions which make up his sixth album, Heartbeat.
His previous albums focused on a piano trio format; this one marks a slight change as the renowned Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman has been added to the trio on five tracks. The quartet tunes bookend the album, with three at the beginning and two at the end. Joining Winkelman's piano & Rhodes are bassist Matt Penman and drummer Obed Calvaire.
Lively gospel piano and guitar lead into the intricate opening track, "Praise." Piano and guitar solos follow, before Calvaire's drums are let loose over Winkelman's vamp. The samba influenced "Fort Tilden" follows; it has a laid-back atmosphere with fluid Rhodes and guitar breaks eventually giving ground to Penman's bass in conversation with Winkelman. All four musicians solo on the light swing of "Chilches."
The four trio tracks begin with the sublime combination of Penman and Winkelman on the reflective ballad "Wandering." The gentle "Isolation," has a freer feel, with cascading piano and Penman's bass to the fore. The time signatures change frequently on "The Wonky Waltz"; it is certainly not a waltz but a light hearted track which flirts with ragtime before moving off into piano and bass explorations. Gentle melodic piano, a simple lyrical hook and an extended bass break feature in "The Plague."
Hekselman returns for the final two tracks and joins Winkelman in stating the melody, and then soloing on "Heartbeat." The light groove of "Machine" finds him at his best, joining the Rhodes in exploring the melody and playing effects, as the track closes.
The decision to expand the trio format worked well on this album; Hekselman is the ideal choice and fits the existing sound palette perfectly. The compositions often start with simple melodic motifs which build in complexity and develop into delightful intricacies which reward repeated plays. Calvaire and Penman navigate the rhythmic explorations and the many changing time signatures with aplomb. Altogether, a rewarding album of textures, pacing and group interplay.