Pianist/composer Ben Markley has shown deft touch in hand picking projects that express the broad range of his relationship with the music. Since 2017 he has produced a rousing big band tribute to Cedar Walton, and a slick quartet record with saxophonist Greg Osby. Clockwise: The Music of Cedar Walton (OA2, 2017) featured Markley's insightful arrangements of the beloved pianist's tunes, utilizing fellow faculty members at the University of Wyoming, and players from the vibrant jazz scene in Denver. Basic Economy (OA2, 2018) paired things down to a quartet setting, again utilizing a stellar guest soloist in Osby.
His latest, Slow Play (OA2, 2019), follows the same format as his prior quartet effort —original compositions with a solid rhythm section playing behind a world class soloist, which in this case is saxophonist Joel Frahm. Frahm's lyrical approach to melodic improvisation, and boss tenor sound is the most compelling reason to engage this release, with bandleader Markley aptly giving him opportunity after opportunity to shine from beginning to end.
Markley's playing is reminiscent of the aforementioned master Walton, broad in range and melodic in nature. Bassist Marty Kenney, and drummer Jim White complete a rhythm section that gives Frahm everything he needs: a forceful forward propulsion, rhythmic and harmonic shadings and sensitive leanings according to the vibe of the tune.
These qualities tend to move the record into the area of a blowing session for Frahm, such as the extended piece, "'Mon Back," or the hard swinging "The Last Time This Happened." Frahm delivers a tone that is fat, but unforced, resisting the lure of emulation.
Markley shines on the title track, using a strong left hand working in conjunction with bassist Kenney, and sharing the solo limelight with Frahm, who ends his solo in dramatic flourish. Frahm switches to soprano for "Sentience," playing with a less assertive, more melancholy sound. His solo work is lushly romantic, with his bandmates more leaning back than pushing forward.
Frahm comes unhinged on "The Return of Catboy," darting and striding through the changes, cleverly dropping in a line from Harold Arlen's "If I Only Had a Brain." Markley's solo is like a tightrope walk between playing free, and swinging the blues, offering his most insightful statement of the album.
While the overwhelming impression this collection of eight tunes leaves the listener with has much to do with Frahm, it is Markley's dynamic interplay with his bandmates as a pianist, and creative vision as a composer that ultimately defines this effort. His writing is smart, and certainly harmonically supportive of the musicians he is writing for, though at times lacking depth and color. A lot of that can be remedied by brilliant playing, and Slow Play certainly has plenty of that. This may prove to be one of the year's straight ahead pearls.