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Houston Jazz TrioLandHo Liquid Phyllis Records

No, Houston's not a jazz mecca, but its small jazz circle boasts some world-class talent. The trio that has dared to name itself after the city is a good example; the Houston Jazz Trio reigns as one of the area's most inventive bands. Formed in 1991 by drummer Tim Solook, guitarist Paul Chester and its former bassist, Dave Nichols, HJT is admired among fellow musicians for its imaginative arrangements, unconventional repertoire and subdued playing.

Like most Houston jazz bands, HJT performs only a few times a month, as the principals often have other commitments. All three, including Nichols's replacement, David Klingensmith, also teach privately.

Unlike most Houston jazz bands, HJT doesn't overplay the same old standards. When it does approach a repertoire piece, however, the trio puts its own laid-back stamp on it. Even at its most intense, HJT's music has a sense of space. The guys don't hit you over the head with technique. Instead, their music slowly sucks you in. Before you know it, you're listening to some smoking playing.

LandHo, the follow-up to the trio's highly praised 1996 recording, Duplicity, which was also its first with Klingensmith on board, is like an HJT live performance: a highly original set of nonstandard jazz fare. HJT covers some little-known tunes, such as Horace Silver's "Sighin' and Cryin'" and "With the Wind and the Rain in Your Hair," by Edwards and Lawrence.

The closest thing to a standard is "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." While the song has been recorded by jazz musicians from Art Tatum to Diana Krall, it's not exactly a jazz warhorse like "Satin Doll." HJT adds a new twist on "Boulevard" by doing it as a tango (a move inspired by another obscure tune in the band's repertoire, Gil Evans's "Las Vegas Tango"). Solook's drumming is the highlight, the color beneath Chester's melodic twists and Klingensmith's fun bowing.

From the pop catalog, HJT transforms Eric Clapton's hit "Change the World" from a decent but overplayed adult-contemporary number into a lively jazz experience. The group inserts a groove from Tony Williams's "Sister Cheryl" into the song, as Solook's splashy drumming drives it along while Chester takes it to bebop land. Perhaps inspired by playing a song associated with a guitar legend, Chester really takes off here, adding some hot embellishments to the melody and soloing exquisitely. It's a masterful exhibition of tension and release. After many twists, turns and detours, he gently ends his solo and prepares the audience for a restatement of the verse. Brilliant.

HJT also adds some punch to the Beatles ballad "Julia." The opening is almost ornate, courtesy of Klingensmith's bowing and Solook's swelling cymbal rides. Quickly, though, the grandiosity turns into heat as Klingensmith's moving bass lines and Chester's upbeat solo take precedence.

Solook wrote the two originals on LandHo. "Da Stench," which features a guest appearance by Houston pianist Joe LoCascio, is a low-down and dirty blues number, while "LandHo," which includes the playing of LoCascio and Houston trumpeter Dennis Dotson, is almost surreal. Somewhat reminiscent of "People Make the World Go 'Round," which the group plays in concert, "LandHo" is a study in group sound dynamics. Dotson, Chester and LoCascio all hit the marks on their solos, showing that they can maintain a song's structure while moving forward its theme as they riff.

One of the most original mainstream jazz efforts of the year, locally or nationally, LandHo is an impressive effort.

LandHo is on sale locally at Cactus Records and via the Web at www.LiquidPhyllis.com and www.independentsmusic.com. The Houston Jazz Trio performs at Sambuca Jazz Cafe early next month.

 
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