Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Time to Hear: The Christoph Spendel Trio: "Harlem Nocturne"

Harlem Nocturne album cover
Christoph Spendel is one of those European gems who has been recording music for over two decades in his native Germany but has zero visibility in the United States, despite a long record of accomplishments with some very high profile American jazz icons. Only with his latest, "Harlem Nocture" (Blue Flame 2012) has he come to my attention.  This is a wonderful, straight-ahead recording full of great trio play with Claudio Zanghieri on bass and Kurt Billker on drums and percussion. 

Some background on Spendel from his website. Spendel is a German jazz pianist, keyboardist, bandleader, composer, arranger, producer, music professor and music journalist with a thirty year career in the different styles of jazz, rock, latin, classical and modern ambience music.
He received his first lessons at the age of five from his mother, a music teacher and pianist. His professional career began in 1975 and recording career with a solo recording in 1977, and early on he worked with many major German, European, and American musicians including Albert Mangelsdorff, Christof Lauer, Lee Ritenour, Airto Moreira, Miroslav Vitous and Eddie Harris. In the nineties he spent five years in New York, was a member of the Fusion Band "Special EFX", and performed at the Blue Note as well as across the U.S.  Spendel went on to work with such players as Dave Liebman, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Bob Mintzer, Randy Brecker, Michael Urbaniak, Jeremy Steig,  Jay Anderson, Adam Nussbaum, Lenny White, Steve Kahn and Dave Valentin, to mention only a few. The rhythm section of "Weather Report" played with Spendel on his CD “New York Groove: Cool Street” (TCB 1993). Spendel has taught at conservatories in Cologne, Duesseldorf and Bremen; held a  professorship at the School of Music in Frankfurt; and taught at the Rimon School in Tel Aviv, and the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. 

Returning to my take on  "Harlem Nocturne," Spendel's piano play is evocative and flows beautifully through ballads, upbeat latinate tunes, and moderately swinging melodies most of which were his compositions. The music seems to be based on his impressions of New York and the great tradition of jazz there, with great melodies and great trio-play bringing the best out in each song. Billker provides a range of textures, light cymbal taps and brushes on softer tunes, and driving percussion on the latin songs like "Teguese." He drives this particular song along with his percussion, giving it the latin flavor while Spendel plays a marvelously flowing melody above. Bassist Zanghieri doesn't step out much but is omnipresent setting a floor/frame for each tune. His support is very clear on "Luca by Sunlight" where it appears he switches to an electric bass or if not he gets a huge tone from his instrument. This is a nice mid-tempo song, lightly played on piano with a great deal of movement expressed by the bass and drums. The short and quiet song "Moon Over Lanzaro", which is only just over a minute, is caressed by the touch and rubato play of Spendel, and leads to a lovely, flowing rendition of "Beyond the Sea" by the trio that hearkens back to the versions sung by Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra. "Happy Kids" is a light mid-tempo bounce that reflects its title, and Spendel's light touch and lightening runs are part of a wonderfully written melody. Zanghieri gets a chance to solo during the song and shines. Finally "The Song is You" is simply exquisite, expressive, and beautifully balanced by the trio.

This is truly a special CD for those who like mainstream music with an appealing bounce, marvelous dynamics, and flowing melodies. Spendel's tunes and interpretations are marvellous and maintain interest with their range of rhythms and flowing lines. I highly recommend this CD, due out in February.

 1991, with Jay Anderson and Adam Nussbaum (check out the hair!)

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