Review: Aaron Diehl’s ‘Space Time Continuum’ Is a Jubilant New Album

06.10.15
Aaron Diehl
New York Times

There’s a bias among certain jazz partisans — let’s be honest and include most critics among them — that allows for scant distinction between the terms “traditional” and “conservative.” And in recent years, the pianist Aaron Diehl often seemed like gleaming proof of that idea, an embodiment of jazz historicism at its most earnest and refined.

Scholarly and fastidious, with an honorable sort of rigor, Mr. Diehl has built his reputation on an elegant pianism outside the contemporary mainstream, like prewar stride, Duke Ellington and the bebop classicism of John Lewis. On his 2013 Mack Avenue debut, “The Bespoke Man’s Narrative,” Mr. Diehl led a quartet meant to evoke Lewis’s highly esteemed and frequently tuxedo-clad ensemble, the Modern Jazz Quartet.

Mr. Diehl’s superior new album — “Space Time Continuum,” out on Tuesday — upholds a traditional framework while crisply demolishing the usual notions of conservatism. It’s a jubilant, swinging outing whose only literal throwback, “Uranus,” is a tune from the 1970s repertory of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

And though it finds places of honor for Benny Golson and Joe Temperley, saxophonists in their mid-80s, this album doesn’t treat them with a gingerly deference. Mr. Temperley earns his gallant encomium in the title, “The Steadfast Titan,” an Ellingtonian tone poem with dramatic undertones. Mr. Golson expresses his gruff nobility on a loping, multi-section piece, “Organic Consequence,” alongside a punchy young trumpeter, Bruce Harris.

Mr. Diehl has widened his aesthetic palette, shrugging off the pristine exactitude that sometimes made him appear cautious to a fault. “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” inspired by the Mondrian painting, is a breakneck bop slalom worthy of Bud Powell; “Santa Maria” is a plunge into post-bop modality, with a melody that briefly quotes Chick Corea’s “Matrix.” Both tracks showcase Mr. Diehl’s fine longtime trio with the bassist David Wong and the drummer Quincy Davis, with a prevailing air of discovery.

Remarkably, Mr. Diehl brings the same spirit to his interactions with the tenor saxophonist Stephen Riley, whose breathy sonority recalls vintage Ben Webster. And the album’s episodic title track, featuring a soulfully assured Charenée Wade on vocals, sounds both oldfangled and vibrantly present tense. The lyrics — by Cécile McLorin Salvant, another close associate of Mr. Diehl’s — touch on solitude and wanderlust, with a clear subtext. “Soon enough I’ll find a space,” Ms. Wade sings. “Find a place in time.”
 
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