Stephen Riley & Peter Zak – Haunted Heart

Title: Haunted Heart
Year Of Release: 2015
Label: SteepleChase
Genre: Jazz
Quality: Mp3 / 320kbps
Total Time: 70:12 min
Total Size: 159 MB

01. Isfahan
02. You Do Something To Me
03. Prisoner Of Love
04. Punjab
05. The Intimacy Of The Blues
06. Haunted Heart
07. After You’ve Gone
08. Moment’s Notice
09. There’s A Small Hotel
10. Alice In Wonderland
11. Pennies From Heaven
Seventy-years ago, the Great American Songbook was still paramount as the professional jazz performer’s bible. Players who couldn’t hang when popular tunes were called summarily found themselves shame-faced on the sidelines of a jam session or gig. Though barely pushing forty, saxophonist Stephen Riley comes out of that storied fealty to melodic mastery and the primacy of a well-minted song. Ten years Riley’s senior, pianist Peter Zak is equivalently versed. The pair put tradition to practice on Haunted Heart, an intimate assemblage of eleven standards that skew towards pre-WWII provenance, but prove anything but antiquated. Zak first teamed with Riley on the saxophonist’s fifth album, adding an element in his instrument that was previously outside the tenorist’s usual purview. Even so, the caliber of their musical camaraderie was nearly instantaneous. The accompanying essay to their last album together intimated the existence of this date and the results are certainly worth the wait. Absent bass and drums as rhythmic agents, the duo relies on agreed upon aural semaphores to keep the interplay from flagging. Zak’s keyboard approach, at once spare and porous allows his partner to range freely through the contours of each piece and devote an even greater than customary focus on textured tonal variation. Riley uses the hardest reeds possible to generate a breathy, almost bifurcated sound that sheathes his phrases in an enveloping fine-grained rasp with direct antecedents in past tenor paragons like Don Byas and Ben Webster.
Billy Strayhorn’s ballad “Isfahan” serves as opener and a scintillating distillation of the carefully-constructed dynamics on display as Riley voicing the theme with sensuous, flute-like buoyancy and Zak shapes terrestrial-bound chords beneath him. Joe Henderson’s “Punjab”, previously tackled by Riley on an earlier session and a regular entry in his stage songbook, features the duo in an up-tempo interaction that expertly blends melodic velocity with emotive import. Once again the spontaneous communication spills over into the sublime with each player anticipating and answering the other with accelerated alacrity. Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” is the other “relatively-recent” selection and still well over six decades old. While not quite on par with the pristine performance of the Henderson piece, it’s still a gorgeous parade of sustained invention especially in a surprising mid-piece downshift to waltz-time. “Prisoner of Love”, “After You’ve Gone” and “Pennies from Heaven” all feature unaccompanied introductory choruses by Riley. His sterling command of the form suggests that a future solo album venture should be an enterprise worthy of serious consideration. Zak’s already recorded in that setting and takes comparable honors on “The Intimacy of the Blues”, the title piece and “Alice in Wonderland”. He makes equally excellent use of the isolation in priming the ears for Riley’s empyrean entry in each case. Whatever reservations the tenorist once harbored about piano placement in his ensembles or as pinion-resistant partner for improvisation, it’s safe to surmise they are firmly the province of the past.
~ Derek Taylor
Personnel: Stephen Riley (tenor saxophone), Peter Zak (piano)

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