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Richie Beirach and Gregor Huebner, with Randy Brecker, George Mraz and Billy Hart: Live At Birdland, New York (ACT)

Review by John Watson

If you like exciting, small-group jazz, played by absolute masters at the peak of their art, and if you are planning to buy only one CD this year, then make it this one.  For this disc - issued to mark the 70th birthday of pianist Beirach and the 50th of violinist Huebner - is the most engaging small group recording I've heard in recent times.

The music, recorded at Birdland in 2012, blazes like crazy from the opening bars of the standard song You Don't Know What Love Is, taken at a snappy tempo and with Brecker's trumpet and Huebner's violin soaring and swooping like birds over the raging wave of the rhythm section. As well as excitement, there's plenty of eloquence throughout the album, particularly in the Beirach-Huebner composition Around Bartok Bagatelle No.4 and Siciliana, the pianist and violinist's vibrant evocation of a Bach creation. These two tracks reflect the trilogy of discs recorded by the two musicians for ACT: "Round About Bartok" (2000),  'Round about Federico Mompou" (2001) and "Round About Monteverdi" (2001).

It's almost impossible to pick out highlights, as all the tracks are so strong: Beirach's own beautiful tune Elm, one of his earliest successes as a composer, Huebner's splendid African Heartbeat, and the concluding John Coltrane work Transition. A drawback in recording live at a club, even one with a distinguished history in its various New York locations, is that audience applause from a relatively small group of people can sound half-hearted.  The music, though, is all heart - and that's what counts.



Tomasz Stanko New York Quartet: December Avenue (ECM)

Review by John Watson

This is an engagingly dark album, full of atmosphere and creative invention. Stanko's trumpet sound, with its haunting fragility, has graced countless ECM albums over more than four decades, and his groups have never been less than complementary to his style. A high point in his career came at the moment when his quartet was completed by four Polish compatriots: pianist Marcin Wasilewski's Trio.

The New York Quartet - pianist David Virelles, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Gerald Cleaver - provides a decidedly robust foil to the leader's plaintive horn. The album opens in a gently explorative mood, with Cloud, the music moving up a notch in intensity on the following track Conclusion. The dynamic title track is, to my ears, the album's high point, but the slow musical explorations which dominate the disc all command attention, and the concluding ballad Young Girl In Flower is gorgeous.