Any ensemble fronted by piano and vibes is going to garner comparisons to the Modern Jazz Quartet, but by his biography, his compositions and arrangements, his song choices and his approach to music, it is apparent that Aaron Diehl welcomes the association. Two years after touring with Wynton Marsalis, and while still a teenager at Juilliard, Diehl spent six months helping the widow of MJQ pianist and musical director John Lewis archive her late husband’s scores, tapes and manuscripts. Diehl’s cerebral, conservative yet thorough command of Euro-classically tinged jazz precociously harkens to Lewis’s conceptual depth, and in vibraphonist Warren Wolf, he has a foil with a quicksilver elegance akin to Lewis’s MJQ partner Milt Jackson.
Citing Lewis and Duke Ellington, Diehl says he wanted to write and arrange songs that showcase his longtime quartet. (Wolf and bassist David Wong have been with Diehl for nearly five years and drummer Rodney Green for more than two.) The Bespoke Man’s Narrative opens with three originals: the suave “Prologue” (repeated as the closing bookend, “Epilogue”), the fleet, cavorting “Generation Y” (a wonderful vehicle for Wolf’s flying mallets), and the hushed, contemplative “Blue Nude.” Then a trio of covers improves on this auspicious beginning. “Moonlight in Vermont” unfurls with an effortless glide that reminds us how enjoyable hoary standards can be when invested with enough love and scholarship. Diehl’s near-solo piano rendition of Ellington’s “Single Petal of a Rose” plumbs for all the melancholy beauty stored in the tune, enriched and amplified by Diehl’s boyhood stint playing services in his father’s funeral parlor. And the entire quartet nails the delightfully airy agility of Milt Jackson’s “The Cylinder.”
Diehl’s “Stop and Go,” brims with clever time changes, highlighted by Diehl’s hammering right hand and Green’s efficient and exquisite drum solo on brushes. An ambitious 11 minutes of Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin” includes another notable Green solo and Diehl’s brittle, almost harpsichord-ish piano tone. And Gershwin’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” like the Ellington cover, respects the original to the point of reverence yet still triumphs, this time on the basis of Wong’s beautifully bowed work, Green’s brushes and Diehl’s twinkling passages.