Tarbaby’s You Think This America

cover, You Think This AmericaMelodic, rhythmic, replete with lush harmonies and head-turning improvisation, Tarbaby’s You Think This America is just about everything I want in a jazz record.

Tarbaby is pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits. They’ve been playing together since the 1990s and have put out five albums since the mid-oughts — but always with guests and always studio dates. This time out they’re fully exploring the trio format in a set recorded by just the three of them live at Hunter College in 2022. You Think This America has elbowed its way onto my list of go-to music this summer of 2024 and I’m having a hard time listening to anything else.

Its 10 tracks clock in at just under an hour, but the sheer variety here make it seem longer and definitely fulfilling. The music here is a well curated mix of classics, originals and an unexpected cover or two. The two selections from Ornette Coleman highlight this trio’s range. Album opener “Dee Dee,” from Coleman’s live trio recording At the Golden Circle in 1965, is melodic in a way I didn’t expect from Coleman, with elements of both Ellington and Monk in Evans’s piano attack. “Comme Il Faut,” from a 1969 album, on the other hand is very free form. The way Tarbaby approaches it, it’s really painting with sound, which I find I enjoy a lot from a trio; it is much more calming to me than an aggressive tenor sax playing free improvisation.

My early favorite is Evans’s “Red Door,” which combines an endearing melody with different styles of improvisation from all three players. It’s a perfect example of what bassist Revis means when he says, “The one thing about us is that we all have very unique musical personalities that just happen to meld together really well, a three-headed monster.” “Red Door” is followed by another Evans original, the driving hard bop of “The Blues (When It Comes)” that’s a real pulse-raiser.

Just when I think I’ve settled on another favorite, like Waits’s lightly swinging ballad “Kush,” which the pianist takes to a lot of amazing places — it gets upstaged by another outstanding track like the slinky bluesy arrangement of a really old standard, Jimmy Cox’s 1923 hit “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.” This is boulevardier music, man … you’ll recognize this one right off. You’ve heard lots of folks do it including Bessie Smith, every blues cat during the Folk Revival, on down to Derek and the Dominoes. Add this arrangement to the pantheon.

Another one you’ll recognize is the uber romantic slide through The Stylistics’ “Betcha By Golly Wow,” which somehow comes out sounding like a companion piece to Bowie’s “Life On Mars.” After the exciting free-form of “Comme Il Faut,” the trio wraps it up with the late free jazz drummer Sunny Murray’s free bop “Tree Tops,” to which the trio gives a lovely form and a melancholy atmosphere.

As you can see, there’s a bit of something here for fans of piano jazz of all types. Evans, Revis and Waits pull no punches, but they also know when to apply some minimalism, whether it be a ballad, a blues, hard bop or free. You Think This America is equal parts comfort, entertainment, and challenge.

(Giant Step Arts, 2024)

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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