One good thing about jazz is that it can be made persuasively without reinventing the wheel. There’s plenty of space at the outer reaches, but great value can still be found from music that stays in the tradition, assuming it’s coming from players who are thoroughly versed in jazz lineage and who are resourceful enough to not be merely copying what they’ve heard. Pianist Bruce Barth is one of these musicians, and his album Live at the Village Vanguard is a prime example of how someone who has learned from his elders can take acquired information and make it entirely fresh. Intimately recorded, Barth’s tone sounds lush and warmly mid-register, bassist Ugonna Okegwo is big-toned and responsive, and the redoubtable Al Foster is as sympathetically on the case as ever. The repertoire is a mix of particularly fine standards, some Monk and a few originals. Nicely paced throughout, everything sounds good, from the energetic opener, “Little Dirty,” through to the finale, a respectful and moving reading of Harold Arlen’s incomparable “When the Sun Comes Out.” Barth is a confident player, but not a showy one; he knows enough to understand that the best way to assay a composer like Arlen is to not overrule him. He knows how to play the tune.
But he can knock your socks off, too, whenever he feels like it, as can Okegwo and Foster. “Prospect Avenue Blues” has an irresistible pulse, spearheaded by a supercharged drum shuffle. The trio builds as it goes, but their control of the material is total; they can say a lot with small shifts in dynamics. It’s always a treat to hear “Star Eyes,” here given a gentle reading until the unit moves into a determined swing, with Okegwo carrying a lot of weight on his shoulders. I’m very partial to Barth’s well-reasoned take on Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday,” with its intricately articulated head. The pianist cites the composer enough to pay homage, then moves into his own voice, combining long, speedy runs with big two-handed chords. Foster pushes him along just enough. With Live at the Village Vanguard, we are given the privilege of listening to three compelling musicians working their way through a perfectly constructed set of beautifully played, highly communicative jazz. That’s no small thing.