Aaron Diehl: The Real Diehl

 

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 by Marilyn Lester

 

 

Aaron Diehl is not only the real deal (a childhood nickname that stuck), and not only a musical prodigy and piano virtuoso, he’s the model of gentility – which delightfully pervades his playing and his musicianship. Diehl has a remarkably light and lyrical touch on the keys, much in the manner of the great Elis Larkins (who jazz critic Whitney Balliett characterized as having a “rippling, quiet-water” style). Diehl’s ability to play with remarkable grace was notably evident on the Philip Glass composition, “Etude 16.” When first asked to play it, Diehl reports it wasn’t in his comfort zone; yet he’s made the piece his own, playing it confidently with a light jazz overlay, supported by the improvisations of the two A-list musicians who make up his trio: bassist Paul Sikivie is a solid anchoring force with a sure, clean beat, while drummer Lawrence Leathers is a percussionist of subtle tone and nuance who seems mystically at one with his instrument.

 

All three musicians play with a kind of supernatural, highly intuitive sense of the whole. Diehl is a generous performer. He is the leader but he also allows his sidemen to shine in their own right. This hand-in-glove- tightness was immediately discernable on the two opening numbers, hard bop composer Horace Silver’s “Opus de Funk” and “Melancholy Mood.” Diehl has already established himself, at the tender age of 30, as a major jazz composer. His “Flux Capacitor” featured the tenor sax of guest artist, Stephen Riley, whose style is dark in the manner of Paul Gonsalves, with the use of licks and subtones for texture. Riley was joined by trumpet virtuoso Dominick Farinacci on Diehl’s extended work, the highly evocative “Organic Consequence.” Farinacci’s trumpet work is incredibly clean and true; it’s no wonder this young player, like Diehl, caught the attention of Wynton Marsalis, who’s championed both artists.

 

Diehl has a talent for attracting gifted players to him. A three-movement piece commissioned for the Monterey Jazz Festival, in honor of John Lewis, featured Warren Wolf on vibraphone. Diehl’s “Three Streams of Expression” perfectly reflected Lewis’ style, especially as leader of The Modern Jazz Quartet, whose repertoire was influenced by classical music, cool jazz, blues and bebop. The piece featured an innovative call and response between Leather’s drums and Diehl’s piano, as well as Wolf playing with a deceptive ease that belied his virtuosity. The latter was especially apparent in the third movement, which featured Diehl’s piano and Wolf’s vibraphone only. Entitled simply “G,” the movement was playful, joyfully fusing several styles together, including a smart baroque riff in the midsection, reprised near the closing phrases.

 

In saving if not the best, then the most magical for last, Diehl played Duke Ellington’s haunting “Single Petal of a Rose” as a duet, with Joe Temperley on the bass clarinet. In doing so, Diehl acknowledged and paid homage to the debt that his music owes to the elders – he knows well that one generation stands on the shoulders of the one before, and the one before that. Temperley, at age 86, is one of the few men left who played in the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the Maestro, and he’s never sounded better. With Temperley’s pure, strong and soulful interpretation, a magic descended on the room; one could have heard the proverbial pin drop. This was Temperley’s moment, and well it should be, capping off an evening of jazz sublimity. Aaron Diehl and his modern masters of the idiom proved that jazz is in good hands for the future. As for Diehl himself, he’s well on his way in executing his goals of “connecting all the language of jazz to make an interesting and engaging performance.”

 

 

Aaron Diehl: The Real Diehl, Friday and Saturday Evening, March 18 and 19, 2016, at 7:00 pm and 9:30 pm

Jazz at Lincoln Center Appel Room, West 60th St. at Columbus Circle, New York, 212-721-6500, http://www.jazz.org/how-to-purchase-tickets/

 

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