December 2001

Larry Willis - Sunshower
Mapleshade CD 08532
Released: 2001

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ***1/2

[Reviewed on CD]This disc will immediately evoke those classic Bill Evans trio albums (with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian). Here is group interplay at is very best. Larry Willis has -- like Evans -- the light touch and the selflessness to illustrate that the whole is often worth much more than the sum of its parts. 

Now, before you go dismissing this as just another piano jazz trio recording (as I almost did), and thereby depriving yourself of some superb music, consider that instead of that hoary old piano/bass/drums combo, Willis uses piano/cello/drums on Sunshower. Ah ha, I hear you saying, a truly different voicing to the trio setup. And therein lies the tale of this recording.

Willis, Kash Killion (on cello) and Paul Murphy (on drums) -- aided or replaced on three of the tracks by Steve Novosel on bass and Steve Barrios on drums -- sound as if they have been playing together all their lives. There is a feeling of effortlessness to their musicianship that allows you to fall right into the music and not come up until the last chord dies away. The comparisons to the Evans trio are almost automatic. However, Evans never received the sonic treatment Willis gets from Mapleshade.

Wait until you hear how well Pierre Sprey has captured the unique sounds of this trio. The startlingly clear window into the sound of each instrument allows all of the cohesiveness between the musicians to shine as it seldom has before. You hear Willis’ piano, clearly the percussive instrument it is, front and just to center left. Killion’s cello is to the right and Paul Murphy’s drums are rear right center. Novosel, when he’s present, is to the rear left. It’s the cello that gets top sound here. Its richness and smoothness, compared to an acoustic bass, is precisely caught, whether it’s being plucked or bowed. And when Novosel’s playing bass, one gets a chance to hear the size difference between the two instruments. Murphy’s cymbals shimmer and float (a Mapleshade trademark) on a bed of air as clearly as the real thing. The sticks recoil off the drumheads in an almost palpable manner, and when Murphy pulls out the brushes, well, you can even tell which way he’s moving them.

Willis, especially here on Sunshower, sounds exactly as I would picture a formally trained classical musician would when playing jazz. (Not a big surprise when you consider Willis is a classically trained pianist, who ran afoul of the obstacles confronting an African/American in the classical field.) And perhaps that’s the biggest problem I had with Sunshower, it’s almost too formal. There are times when I wished Willis would let go of his training and just play. But then, this selfsame critique was leveled at Evans too, and he didn’t have such a bad career.

And it’s precisely that Evans-style group telepathy that raises this disc from merely just another piano trio session to one with long-term listen potential.

Larry Willis has been overlooked far too long. By all rights, he should be included among today’s pantheon of great jazz pianists. Maybe it’s all the work he does as A&R man for Mapleshade, or perhaps it’s his egoless style of playing, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, it’s a crying shame. Sunshower demonstrates just how good a jazz musician he is. He really shines in this trio setting, without ever eclipsing his bandmates. It is probably this selflessness that is not only his biggest asset, but his largest bÍte noire.

If you crave the sound of the jazz piano trio, in the classic Bill Evans sense, but with better sound, Sunshower is for you. Recommended.