4 1/2 STARS
Growing up under the weight of communism in Poland in the late '60s and early '70s, Joachim Mencel dreamed of the freedoms and wonders of America. Stateside relatives sent food parcels, offering him his first tastes of Hershey's chocolate and the inviting aromas of Maxwell House coffee; and Polish public radio station Trójka filled his ears with jazz, gifting the sounds of Miles Davis, among other greats. By the time Mencel first travelled to America, to take part in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition in 1989, an idealized vision of the country and the jazz it produced merged beautifully with reality. During that trip he met Walter Bishop, Jr. and Barry Harris (who would become his teacher), and Horace Silver happened to be his neighbor at the Hyatt Regency. Future trips, to record and serve as a guest lecturer in higher education, only furthered his love for the land of opportunity. And this album, in a way, serves as a culmination of his fascination with American culture, music and life.
Brooklyn Eye is the fulfillment of Mencel's strong and long-held desire to gather a dream team to record his American-influenced, modernistic originals in New York. Enlisting guitarist Steve Cardenas, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Rudy Royston, and serving up a slate of tunes penned at various points over the course of his career, this pianist proves to be both mighty and malleable. Opener "I'm Yo Man," powered by Royston's muscular drumming and featuring strength on strength, is a head-on hit. "The Things," which winks at a familiar standard implied by its title, is a beautifully communicative cross-threading of ideas, melodies and personalities. "Full Immersion" bathes in rubato waters, alternately speaking to pellucid purity and a narrative surrounding scurrying and/or sweeping tides. And "Arrowsic," written during Mencel's stay in the titular Maine town some two decades ago, offers harmonic openness and a beautiful view of Colley's clear-headed soloing.
While Mencel's piano and pen are, obviously, central to this effort, his use of hurdy-gurdy—a hand-crank-operated string instrument (or wheel fiddle, to be more concise and visually on point)—also helps to define the sound of the project. Whether offering a Mediterranean tinge to "Two Pieces with Beatrice," injecting a sense of mysticism rooted in the Middle East into "Psalm 88" or bringing folkish charms to the fore during a duo dalliance with Cardenas on "Photosynthesis," Mencel's work with that instrument adds volumes to the music while also exploring avenues of sound and meaning that are largely ignored.
In seeing his dream through, Joachim Mencel has created an album of tremendous depth, passion and promise that speaks to the liberties that he's always admired in America, its non-proprietary strains of jazz and the musicians who make it. Brooklyn Eye, simply put, has a wide-open gaze on possibility.