In his singular yet unassuming way, pianist Bob Degen has been putting out compelling jazz trio albums for more than 40 years. He doesn’t record often, though, so each album is something to be highly valued, and Catability may be his best yet. In bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Bill Stewart, the pianist has found a rhythm section with a nearly preternatural instinct for what his music requires. For listeners geared to standard piano trios, Degen may seem a bit idiosyncratic in his phrasing and choice of notes; he doesn’t come directly from any particular school (his closest musical brethren are Paul Bley and possibly Keith Jarrett), and he’s not a virtuoso. His chief virtues are his crystal clear tone, his profound gift for melodic improvisation, and his resistance to predictable rhythmic routine. If his playing veers toward the contemplative, there’s nonetheless a vein of optimism running through it. If he eschews peaks and valleys dynamically, there’s a universe of information within his circumscribed boundaries.
There is great satisfaction to be gotten from someone who can produce something so beautiful from such a contained vocabulary; a haiku. Like a lot of thoughtful albums, Catability may best be taken whole. But it’s worth pointing out some of its high points. “Courage,” the opener, is one of the album’s more propulsive pieces, largely as a result of Stewart’s aggressive snare work and meticulous high hat accents. Formanek understands how to set up a pedal point and then move a line forward, which creates an effective tension/release. This is exactly the kind of cushion that Degen thrives on; it gives him the freedom to play as much or as little as he wants.
It’s a test for any trio to take on oft-covered jazz standard; a substantial tune to begin with, “My Old Flame” is given a further makeover here. I don’t remember hearing a more persuasive version. Degen, while respecting the melody, seems to simultaneously tap into the emotional jazz history of this song, now more than 80 years old. “Sophie” is yet another example of the responsibility with which Degen entrusts Formanek and Stewart. By having them set up an elegant, breezy swing, he can superimpose highly vocalized single note lines or guiding chords. It sounds, at cursory hearing, like a straight ahead tune, but it’s anything but that. While listening to Degen’s solo, think Ornette Coleman; the concatenation of sing-songy lines, adding up to a logical whole, comes from a similar system of construction to the saxophonist’s. And what to make of the gentle waltz “Ode to Sammy Davis, Jr.?” There appears to be no irony attached to the tune, but who would have ever imagined that a Vegas icon would be the beneficiary of such a wistful and tasteful tribute?