English Renaissance

With the release of Beauty, Paul English's first CD, the local jazz pianist is poised to earn broader national recognition for the lyrical, rhythmically varied piano style and compositions that local jazz fans have known for years. English's newly founded Capstone Records -- "a microbrewery label" that emphasizes quality over quantity -- will feature three new English releases this year, including Beauty (scheduled for release February 5, though not available in stores until later in the month). His February 5 concert at Stude Hall, the first jazz concert ever held in that venue, promises to be one of the year's best, with English performing alongside the world-class players who support him on Beauty: John Patitucci, former bassist for Chick Corea's Akoustic and Elektric bands; Will Kennedy, drummer for contemporary fusion group the Yellowjackets; and Houston's own Kirk Whalum on sax.

Imagine, if you can, a revolution in the concept of adult contemporary jazz. The David Benoits, Dave Grusins and Bob Jameses of the world would be banned, along with other jazz popularizers or popular jazzicizers. No more audio wallpaper, with its syrupy, bouncy, echo-boosted, overlarded sound, its brightly packaged, banal and repetitiously simplistic melodies punctuating Lexus commercials. Banish Kenny G to Siberia. Forget about "Sunday Jazz Brunches" and start tuning into jazz in the late afternoon or early twilight. "Give us heady improvisation, not lite tidbits," the newly empowered jazz elite might cry.

If such a revolution were to clear the airwaves, and if disks like Beauty were to fill the new playlists, "adult contemporary jazz" could come to mean something authentically challenging. English's disk features ten original compositions written over the past 25 years, all ballads -- a form that he admits is the jazz genre most likely to reach a wide audience. But the fluent, interactive ensemble playing, the spare, subtle texture of the compositions, the balanced, completely acoustic sound and the restrained but highly suggestive solo work put this release far above most of what passes for popular jazz today.

Beauty bears repeated listening for its cerebral, deceptively calm qualities, as though English were a Zen master of jazz who invites us to imagine the sound of one hand clapping, or at least the sound of the pauses between notes. Half the pleasure of listening to this disk comes from anticipating the rhythmic and chordal changes, or the unpredictable solo variations. And the solos are not intended as mere showcases for each player's considerable talents: the muted and evocative performances, especially the rhythm section of Patitucci and Kennedy, are solidly grounded in each piece and responsive to the other quartet members' work. English's piano playing does not call attention to itself; rather it draws forth, spurs on and catalyzes the work of the entire ensemble, both as a group and as individuals. For his role of composer-and-leader-as-enabler, English is indebted to Chick Corea. For his understated style and clear, spacious melodic lines, he can claim to be an heir of Bill Evans.

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Although the ballads are based on conventional forms, each track challenges the listener to find new twists and turns. Kennedy's solo on the disk's most ambitious arrangement, "Hidden Beauty," is a controlled, textured rhythmic shift, and a vast change of pace from his more explosive style with the Yellowjackets. The drum solo precedes Patitucci's bass and David Caceres' haunting sax solos -- atypical but effective. And Kirk Whalum's soprano-sax work on the title track (which is reprised in a final arrangement, without Whalum, led by English's piano and featuring chamber wind instruments along with Eric Avinger's coloration on twelve-string classical guitar) is unlike anything he's ever recorded. The muted, vibrato-tinged, spaced-apart and tactfully slurred sax-playing on this opening track sets a hushed but provocative tone that persists throughout the disk. Patitucci's solos are so masterful that English claims he could have allowed the bassist to stretch them out forever (but such indulgences would have made Beauty a John Patitucci album). The Latin beat on "Waiting Hopeful (Esperando con Esperanza)," the progressive improvisation on both the melody and rhythm of "Unconditional Surrender," and the bowed harmonic undercurrents on "Four Winters" are all high points of Patitucci's playing.

The compositions range from the bluesy "Korisong," written in 1985 to celebrate the birth of Kirk Whalum's daughter and featuring a dominating tenor-sax solo, to the Celtic-flavored "Heaven-Haven," part of English's 1989 commissioned settings for the lyrics of Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. Although the original vocal accompaniment is absent here, the rich but delicate chamber-music sound and the cascading melodies evoke the storm and shelter of Hopkins' poem, as well as the poet's springing verse rhythms. Two later tracks that feature Rob Lockhart on tenor sax, "Where Do Our Hopes Lie Now?" and "Unconditional Surrender," recall the sound that the northern-European jazz label ECM was best known for in the '70s and '80s: a stark, pristine, uncluttered effect, pregnant pauses between melodic lines, and exploratory, winding, tentative sax solos that suggest a solitary figure standing on a Scandinavian mountaintop in the middle of winter.

The quartet setting of English, Whalum (or David Caceres or Rob Lockhart), Patitucci and Kennedy will hold the strongest appeal for jazz purists, but Beauty also features some chamber-music settings, recorded in Austin (as opposed to L.A., where the rest of the album was recorded), in which the cello, flute, English horn or oboe leads the melody. These selections show English at home in another type of subdued, lyrical idiom: the classical overtones lend a tighter, more disciplined harmonic sense to the group's playing, but also allow for suite-like variations on the melodies and more intricate percussion effects. English points out that the tracks become more rhythmically and harmonically complex as the disk progresses. Yet he and his supporting cast can converse instrumentally with one another and develop new directions on the simplest tracks, while they maintain a reflective, understated, complementary style of ensemble playing that solidifies the later, more complex pieces.

How does English cope with the impoverished Houston jazz scene, its few underequipped and noisy venues, the flight of talented local players? Although it's a dubious advantage, this city doesn't offer many distractions to his composing. And if he were based in L.A. or New York, where all but a handful of well-established players have to survive by taking on limited supporting roles in clubs and studios, he couldn't enjoy the degree of artistic autonomy he has here. And, paradoxically, he may gain greater recognition as an actively recording and occasionally touring player based in Houston than as a permanent resident of some city boasting a richer jazz climate. Recalling a trip to Vienna a few years ago, where he was offered a regular gig (which he turned down), English notes: "When you come there from the States, you bring food to the table and you're treated like visiting royalty. But when you live there, you're fighting for the same scraps of food that everybody else wants."

Likewise, the performance at Stude Hall will be a special occasion, since the "all-star team" of players who are flying in from L.A. will bring rarely heard talent to Houston's scanty jazz table. English intends to give them the lavish treatment they deserve. About a third of the concert will consist of the subtle, calm, spare material from Beauty. The remaining pieces will show other facets of the leader's work, divided equally between traditional jazz numbers and original compositions.

Paul English celebrates the release of Beauty Saturday, February 5, 7:30 p.m. at Stude Concert Hall, Rice University, 629-3700. Tickets $20-$40.

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