There I was, minding my own business and listening to my local jazz radio station (remember jazz radio?) when suddenly I heard a very gifted piano trio playing a bopish cover of James Taylor's quintessential hit "Fire and Rain". Why hasn't anyone else done this before? I wondered in stunned amazement. Only later was I to discover that this trio was led by drummer Tad Britton, with pianist Marc Seales and bassist Jeff Johnson, and had recorded this excellent album for Seattle's Origin Records in 2007.
"Fire and Rain" was unavoidable if you lived in the United States during the 1970s, even if you didn't regularly seek out the music of what came to be known as "the singer-songwriters". Clocking in at 10:46, this version is an absolute show-stopper: one listen will almost guarantee your clicking on "add to cart". Starting slowly, the trio runs through four verses and choruses. Each time around, Seales picks up the tempo and ranges further and further from the famous melody line. Then Johnson takes his best solo on the album, and the group runs through one more repeat of the verse and chorus. An extended coda follows, and suddenly you'd swear Keith Jarrett is sitting in, bluesily vamping it up like never before. There's finally a quiet fade, and all one can say is, "WOW!"
So what of the rest of the album? In spite of a well-rounded variety of moods and tempi, there's almost an ECM Records-like aura to these performances. Britton (who originally hails from South Dakota - thus the album title) does an excellent job in choosing material and allowing Seales and Johnson to continuously steal the show. This is not a typical "drummer's album", and Britton is content to let each song dictate the necessary percussion. There's a rousing, rambunctious version of Bill Evans' "Time Remembered", a more leisurely take of George Duke's "Love Reborn", and an uptempo cover of Steve Swallow's "Falling Grace" that strays very far afield from more familiar versions. A brief run-through of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" is sure to bring a smile.
There are some recording/engineering problems with this album that prevent it from being an out-of-left-field (left coast?) masterpiece. On Jeff Johnson's ballad "Dark Kiss" and the peaceful closer "The Windmills of Your Mind", Britton's brushes are miked too closely and are far too loud: it sounds like there's a windstorm or crashing ocean just outside the studio. On Britton's one brief solo piece, "Red Drum", the toms are overly resonant to the point of distraction. Throughout the album, Johnson is not recorded to his best advantage and even when soloing is buried in the mix beneath the other two players.
Some might complain this album is too short (48:35) but this is just the outstanding discretion of not overworking a good studio session. In spite of its minor imperfections, Black Hills
is definitely a keeper and worth your while if only for "Fire and Rain".