Randy Ingram was part of a cluster of new talent that was being brought to light by the Brooklyn Underground Jazz record label in the late aughts. The Road Ahead (2009) was a solid debut for the California-raised pianist and composer. As good as that is, Ingram was intent on improving on it; that’s why his the follow-up has taken five years to materialize.
Ingram retained his rhythm section of Matt Clohesy (bass) and Jochen Rueckert (drums) during the long layover, replacing a highly regarded sax player (John Ellis) with an equally highly regarded guitarist (Mike Moreno), and he’s moved over to the SunnySide Records. Sky/Lift, out February 18, reflects a musician who started out with a lot of maturity but worked hard to further deepen that maturity. Instead of applying his creative interpretive skills to acts as wide-ranging as the Beatles, Cole Porter and Thelonious Monk, Ingram seems to be finding his inner Bill Evans this time.
His only cover for the new album, in fact, is Evans’ sublime composition “Time Remembered” where the progression of expressionistic chords is same as original, but he puts his own mark in the interpretation via subtle differences in the cadence and flow. Elsewhere, Ingram’s songs and the way he performs them evokes Evans, but infused with an affinity for contemporary styles of music both within jazz and outside of it, he brings the icon’s vision forward into the present. “The Sea,” for example, is updated modern take on Evans’ harmonic structures accomplished by blending in rock progressions.
Viewed within that context, adding Moreno was the crucial move in realizing what Ingram set out to do. The opening track “Sky/Lift” is full of light-footed melodic passages, and Ingram and Moreno are working close together to illuminate them, much as Jim Hall and Evans combined to make songs more melodious. The twelve-minute “99” (not the Toto song) is an epic where the formula has it finest moment. The resonance of Moreno’s guitar is paired with the resonance of the piano to transmit a highly pleasing tone, as Rueckert’s Elvin Jones shuffle lends the song an additional spiritual pulse. Moreno peels away on a sensitive solo, making every note count as the song traverses over an unexpected but entirely appropriate bridge, and Ingram counters with an impassioned showcase.
Ingram also proves to be a master of manipulating rhythms to shape the songs as much as he does with harmony. He suspends timekeeping altogether on the tender piano ballad “Silent Cinema,” and even Clohesy is following the piano more than the bassist is following the drums. “St. Louis” marries a more complex melody to a free, untethered tempo in a way that hints at harmolodics, but Ingram’s shapes impart a sentiment that’s easier to embrace. And “Late Romantic” is a lilting melody set to a waltz that’s often implied, not made explicit.
The whole batch of recordings ends with a tribute to unsung rock session pianist Nicky Hopkins. Ingram used the occasion of “Nicky” to show how Hopkins’ blues-rock style can fit in a modern jazz setting without losing any of its vitality.
The huge leap Randy Ingram made in fine-tuning his craft made the five-year wait for Sky/Lift entirely justifiable. With nothing approaching filler in it and full of understated, gleaming performances, this is an album deserving of a lot of notice.
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