Piano Man

Since he began booking acts for his intimate club, Cezanne, about three years ago, pianist Dave Catney has been almost single-handedly responsible for raising the quality of jazz performance in Houston. Thanks to Cezanne's active patronage and joint-sponsorship program, local audiences have been able to catch rising stars, flawless journeymen and mainstays of the New York and L.A. scenes. A roster of recent and upcoming guests reads like an intergenerational Who's Who of jazz artists: vocalist Roseanne Vitro, pianist Fred Hersch, revered bassist Milt Hinton, arranger Bob Belden and drummer/pianist Art Lande. Whether Catney is performing with these visiting artists or leading his local trio, his steady but rangy piano anchors each set at his acoustically friendly club.

Catney's playing projects a classy, gracious, energetic personal manner -- responsive to audiences and fellow performers alike -- that the deceptively youthful veteran has cultivated since his first regular gig at the Four Seasons in 1985, where he played solo piano over six hours a night, six nights a week. The experience allowed Catney to build up a strong local following as well as the extensive repertoire of standards, show tunes, ballads and original compositions that Reality Road, his third Justice Records release and first solo project, brings to fruition.

Built on Catney's experience of playing in jazz clubs and piano bars, Reality Road captures the feel and pace of a virtuoso solo set without the segues and background chatter. As the first jazz release ever to be recorded in Rice's Stude Concert Hall, the disk aims for the purity of classical music with the ambiance of a smaller club -- an effect enhanced by recording engineer Andy Bradley's close-range, multidimensional placement of the mikes. The result, Catney says, is a "cushioning" of the sound so that the character of the piano is not lost in the cavernous concert hall. Recording his 11 tracks in only two days last summer, Catney took advantage of a fortuitous accident -- a hiss on the first recording that only one technician immediately noticed -- to rethink his performances for the second taping. Since Catney chose many of the disk's tunes in response to suggestions and performed them without rehearsal to encourage free improvisations, the pianist took an extra degree of foresight into this recording: the material was approached with the freshness of a live club date but the fuller confidence of, say, a second night's show.

Believing that in jazz "everything is either borrowed or stolen," Catney regards his performances mainly as new interpretations and recontextualizations of traditional material. As befits a set of solo piano pieces, the disk offers a placid, meditative sound that delves into smoldering lyric expression, slackens into gray melancholy and swirls into airy, bright colorings. The sequence of the tracks suggests a cascading effect: the bouncy tunes, show-stoppers, Tin Pan Alley numbers and humorous sallies are interspersed with the somber, elegiac, bluesier numbers.

Catney welcomes us aboard with the high-stepping Benny Golson standard "Whisper Not," only to take us through the autumnal path and lightly tripping pace of his original "Reality Road." After tugging playfully at the phrasing in a relaxed version of the old torch song "Never Let Me Go," Catney diversifies the rhythm with Chick Corea's "Waltz for Dave," keeping a tricky meter with his left hand while running a gamut of syncopated, fluttering variations on the Old World-sounding melody with his right. An understated, slow, dark "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" (from My Fair Lady) follows, and it clears the way for Reality Road's two most aggressive and probing tracks, judiciously set right in the middle of the disk: the buoyantly bluesy "Old Folks," which alternates between thoughtful harmonic patches and lightly honky-tonk runs on the refrain, and John Coltrane's "Some Other Blues," which showcases Catney's finger-twisting speed, rhythmic sophistication and fluency in voicing. The lower register of his piano simulates McCoy Tyner's pulsating "sheet of sound" effect and creates a foil for the striking melodic line, which pays respect to Coltrane's circular, impetuous, rapid-breathing soprano sax.

Rounding out the disk are three more originals, including the impressionistic interlude "An Old Wive's Tale" -- a "freely composed piece that moves at its own pace," Catney says. It cultivates a tentative, hesitant, stretched-out sense of its changing melody. The piece marks an impressive experiment for Catney, who had no classical training and learned to play by ear. Tadd Dameron and Count Basie's "Good Bait," a workout on stride piano, serves up some advanced ivory-tickling and showmanly leaps from note to note. This upbeat romp punctuates the more wistful originals -- "Since Then" and "Little Prayer" -- that, despite their somber coloring, still take a stately, subtle ascent up the scale or allow a minor-key glimpse of light to shine through.

Such discreet, indirect compositional touches, and solo piano in general, do not characterize the type of jazz that's typically aired, especially in small markets. But Catney and Justice remain confident of the disk's potential to reach audiences who rely on word of mouth and have a penchant for listening to quiet, sincere arrangements (no New Age echo chambers or beefed-up reverberation here).

Although this is the final release in Catney's three-disk contract with Justice, his future plans embrace an even wider range of his solo talents -- an album of ballads or of his vocal accompaniments to standards and his own compositions, for example. In a few weeks, Catney's final Reality Road track, "Little Prayer," will appear on Fred Hersch's compilation Last Night When We Were Young: A Ballad Album, with vocalist Sandra Dudley accompanying Catney on piano. Sponsored by the New York-based Classical Action and Broadway Cares: Performing Artists Against AIDS, the disk features, among others, all-star alto man Phil Woods, harmonica master Toots Thielemans, vibraphonist Gary Burton and swing pianist George Shearing.

Celebrating the release of Reality Road, Dave Catney will perform with David Craig on bass and Carl Lott on drums on Thursday, April 14 at Cezanne, 4100 Montrose. Call 867-7992 for more info.


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