DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross. In the 1970s and '80s, George Cables was the pianist of choice for saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper; Pepper called him his favorite piano player. Cables also recorded a lot with jazz stars Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson and Frank Morgan.
George Cables has his own new album, a jazz trio. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says this time it's personal.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MUSE")
GEORGE CABLES: (Instrumental)
KEVIN WHITEHEAD: George Cables' tune "My Muse," from his new album of the same name, a tribute to his late partner Helen Wray. Over the years, Cables wrote three songs on it for her. Whether he's in a playful or tender mood, these tunes are from the heart. He can swing and sound lost in reverie at the same time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ONE AND ONLY LOVE")
WHITEHEAD: George Cables on the standard ballad "My One and Only Love." He's a terrific pianist, but his new album is short on flashy gestures and long on tuneful refinement. It reminds us great jazz can be about restraint as well as abandon, about freedom within established forms. Power drummer Victor Lewis is mixed a little low for my taste, given his discretion to begin with; he radiates quiet strength, stoking a low fire instead of torching the place. The drummer sneaks a Brazilian march rhythm under "Helen's Song."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELEN'S SONG")
WHITEHEAD: George Cables is so fluent in the ways of the keyboard and pedals and song forms and harmony, so aware of his available options every second, he doesn't need to fall back on ready-made licks. But not all of the trio's decisions are made in the moment. As a structural feature, he loves yoking together his left hand and Essiet Essiet's bass, to give the music an extra-fortified low end. They play in tight unison so often, those doubled bass lines are the trio's signature. Fused piano and bass have such a distinct color, when they merge it's almost like another instrument making an appearance.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE WAY WE WERE")
WHITEHEAD: George Cables and Company, making a silk purse out of Marvin Hamlisch's "The Way We Were." The trio polish their music to such a high gloss, you could underestimate it if you think jazz always needs a healthy dose of grit to stay real. "My Muse" is so unassumingly good, you could miss just how good it is. It gives good taste a good name.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat and Emusic, and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "My Muse," the new recording by George Cables on the HighNote label.
Coming up, an interview from our archives with composer John Cage.
This is FRESH AIR.