Fans of over-the-top piano playing: this album’s for you. Richie Beirach should probably be a far bigger name than he is. A classically trained virtuoso, he has worked with Stan Getz and Chet Baker and also enjoyed fruitful collaborations with guitarist John Abercrombie and saxophonist Dave Liebman, whilst also focusing his own deeply personal solo projects.
Another frequent collaborator – the violinist Gregor Huebner – joined Beirach on the 25th and 26th August 2012 for two joint birthday gigs (Beirach’s 70th and Huebner’s 50th) at Birdland, alongside a very strong lineup: Randy Brecker on trumpet, George Mraz on bass and Billy Hart on drums.
The music they produced on those two nights is quite unlike anything this writer has ever heard before. There are elements of classical, bebop, Latin and rock, but you never know what’s coming down the track next, and the fusions are novel without ever becoming corny.
Beirach’s playing is exhilarating, outrageous and – refreshingly – not perfect. He’s not at all afraid of ‘out’ notes. At times he makes even Michel Petrucianni and Gonzalo Rubalcaba seem understated. On ‘Around Bartok Bagatelle #4’, his piano intro sounds uncannily like a string quartet, and he later quotes from Wayne Shorter’s ‘Speak No Evil’. Huebner’s violin tone is silky smooth yet somehow ethereal, and he even throws in a little Vaughan Williams for good measure.
On ‘Elm’, Beirach reaches inside the instrument to produce some dissonant string-picking, before a stirring melody emerges underpinned by strong, sometimes obtuse harmony reminiscent of Brad Mehldau’s work. Brecker’s solos throughout are reliably strong and stable, always a pleasing addition, while the violin/trumpet frontline is original, piquant and occasionally funny, particularly on a uproarious version of Coltrane’s ‘Transition’ which turns into a wall of sound after Beirach’s crushing solo over a brutal one-chord vamp.
A few slight reservations: poor Billy Hart sounds like he only has one very distant mic placed around his drums – the snare is mushy and the cymbals washy. Also the CD is mastered to within an inch of its life – it’s way too loud, with the tonal range in danger of disappearing completely. But this is still an exciting, vibrant album, and highly recommended.
Live At Birdland New York is out now on ACT Records.