As the Music Director at Notre Dame’s Sacred Heart Parish, music and faith go hand-in-hand for pianist and composer J.J. Wright. Wright doesn’t necessarily preach from the pulpit or even behind a Steinway, he expresses his religion through spiritual healing of his music. Inward Looking Outward is an acoustic trio date with Ike Sturm on bass and Nate Wood on drums and before any trepidation develops about yet another piano/bass/drums album, let me stop that right now and tell you that this isn’t typical at all of a jazz record with that kind of configuration. It isn’t really a gospel music record, either (the solemn march “JTC III” is the only tune on here with even a Sunday morning attitude).
Instead, think of Inward (due out August 19, 2014 by Ropeadope Records) as jazz piano that’s often only incidentally jazz with a thoroughly 21st century rhythm section. This could be the best album The Bad Plus never made…but should have. With both the secular and ecclesiastical existing side-by-side, Wright brings to bear his formal studies at the New School For Jazz in New York, as well as his love for classical music, and his infallible ear for hooks.
Five of these nine numbers are part of a suite, “JTC” — which stands for “Journey to Christ” — but they are all broken up and ordered non-sequentially, and the flow seems right this way. “JTC II” starts the record off on a forceful mindset, a rough break beat pushing hard against Wright’s mix of Mozart and Monk. This makes “JTC I” easier to embrace, a through composed, gently unfolding song full of little twists and turns but always returning home. Not much improvisation until well into the song, as the composition and the slow funk groove are the main attractions.
“JTC V” is a straightforward folk tune with genteel mood, but “JTC IV” might be the only selection here that could be considered modern jazz, with start-stop tempos and knotty progressions. Wright then gets minimal as the song enters the solos phase as Wood and Sturm swings with concrete firmness and Wood solos propulsively barely underneath Sturm and Wright to end tune with a thump. “Consolations” is fueled by a nifty syncopated beat and Wright effortlessly plays right into that pocket. Everyone stops as Sturm begins a new bass vamp the restarts the same beat around it, and a total integration of the band ensues.
The three covers chosen for this album aren’t gospel tunes, either, but in their own ways fit with the spiritual theme of the album. “Little Person” by soundtrack maestro Jon Brion is an unencumbered, uncluttered and unhurried reading, just like the original, as Wright sings” the lyrics with his right hand, and the band unexpectedly rises to a mid tempo groove before abruptly winding down. Sufjan Stevens spiritual “The Transfiguration” might be gospel themed, but Stevens’ pretty harmony seals the deal for it being a great fit on this album. Wright dispenses with Steven’s ornate arrangement and gets down to the meat of the strain, but like Stevens’ version, subliminally modulates the mood. As Wood and Sturm settle into a drum ‘n’ bass vibe, Wright shows off wickedly good improv acumen, conjuring up well-timed peaks and valleys and seamlessly transitioning right back into the theme.
And lastly, a cover everyone knows, Phil Collins’ “Take Me Home.” A song better song than the very 80s-ish production applied to it suggests, the rapturous melody has a simple beauty to it, and Wright properly acts as a conduit for it instead of remaking it into something else. Wood does an organic take on that signature, polyrhythmic pulse that’s downright hypnotic.
Uncommonly fresh and quietly inventive, Inward Looking Outward breathes new life into the venerable ol’ piano trio without having to step outside to achieve that. A rare achievement, to be sure.