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Mike Longo Trio + 2: To My Surprise

img  Tobias Fischer

Pianist Mike Longo has quite the resume. Originally discovered by saxophone legend Cannonball Adderly, Longo cut his teeth studying with Oscar Peterson and performing as the house pianist at New York’s famed Metropole Café. In the 1960s, he began a nine-year tenure as a member of the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet and over the course of his six-decade career, performed with a who’s-who list of jazz luminaries including Thelonius Monk, Wayne Shorter, and Ella Fitzgerald. To My Surprise finds the seasoned pianist and his longtime trio mates Bob Cranshaw and Lewis Nash joined by trumpeter Jimmy Owens and saxophonist Lance Bryant for a relaxed and lyrical set that recalls the cool sounds of 60s modal jazz.

For the most part, the combo remains in the comfortable realm of mid-tempo tunes that follow the template of post-Kind of Blue modal jazz. Longo’s playing swings between bluesy flourishes and dizzying bebop lines that flow effortlessly from his fingers. Favoring “inside” notes and straightforward antecedent/consequent phrasing over more “modern” approaches, the pianist’s ultra-lyrical playing is at once relaxed and cerebral, playful and intense. Nash’s brushed drumming and Cranshaw’s nimble, understated basslines maintain a sense of buoyancy under Longo’s melodic curves, moving through start-stop figures and fills with a telepathic sense of interplay.

To My Surprise alternates playful, nuanced piano trio numbers with more electrifying tracks featuring the blistering horn playing of Owens and Bryant. These songs, marked by Longo’s tight sax/trumpet arrangements, delightfully recall the later incarnations of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. On the album’s cleverly titled opening track, “A Picture of Dorian Mode,” Bryant blurs soulfully through double-time chord changes, while Owens channels Freddie Hubbard’s dizzying trumpet gymnastics. “Still Water” takes more of a Lee Morgan soul-jazz approach, with harmonized horn figures framing Longo’s funky, bluesy playing and Nash’s snapping backbeat rhythms.

The trio-only numbers, while less outwardly intense, shine with a sense of effortless mastery. The musicians function as a single unit, moving between punchy rhythmic stops and long, fluid bebop phrases on the intense “Eye of the Hurricane,” unfurling quiet philosophical lines on the subtly bluesy ballad “In the Wee Small Hours.” There’s never a sense of self-indulgence—even the most virtuosic moments (and there are plenty of them) have an understated, conversational quality. Nash’s quietly intense drumming interjects nimbly between the cracks of Cranshaw’s walking figures; Longo’s lines dart playfully over the top, sometimes moving in tandem with, sometimes moving against the others’ playing.
Even during its most intense moments, To My Surprise maintains a relaxed, conversational feel. While certainly cerebral, there’s a charming sense of informality and lightheartedness that pervades the music—a sort of “off the cuff” feel that makes their virtuosity sound like second nature. This is just another night for these seasoned musicians.

By Hannis Brown

Homepage: Mike Longo

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