Here's another well-planned and immaculately recorded solo album by pianist Michael Kocour, his second such enterprise for OA2 Records (the first, Wherever You Go, There You Are, was released in 2015). As its title suggests, East of the Sun consists almost entirely of gems from the Great American Songbook with one zircon (guitarist Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You," a signature song for the late Ray Charles) thrown in at the end for a diverting change of pace.
In recording by himself, with no rhythmic safety net, Kocour is continuing a jazz tradition that extends at least as far back as Art Tatum and perhaps even further, incorporating some of the master's phrases and others gleaned from such role models as Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris and Cedar Walton, among others. Even so, Kocour's voice is his own, and a strong one it is, making the strenuous task of imparting warmth, freshness and personality to a program of relatively well-known music seem rather easy.
It is, of course, hard to wander too far astray when reprising songs by Arlen, Gershwin, Porter or Carmichael, as their music all but speaks for itself. Kocour enhances it with charming themes by Neil Moret ("She's Funny That Way"), Cliff Burwell ("Sweet Lorraine") and Donald Heywood ("I'm Coming Virginia") in addition to Gibson's "Loving You" and Brooks Bowman's seductive title song, which opens the album. While Kocour always has his best foot forward and there's never a note out of place, the performance readily transcends that, as it is Kocour's singular approach to melody, rhythm and harmonic undertones that draws the listener's ear and engages his or her attention. As is true of almost anyone who shoulders the daunting task of completing a recital on unaccompanied piano, Kocour is at heart a story-teller, and the narrative he imparts via the keyboard is incisive and endearing.
Yes, there are a few partisans for whom a little solo piano goes a long way, but everyone else should have no trouble warming to Kocour's charming and resourceful excursions on East of the Sun.