Pianist Spike Wilner was first brought to my attention by the saxophonist Joel Press. Working jazz musicians are notoriously tough critics; when a good one tells you someone can really play, it’s worth your time to check him or her out. La Tendresse confirms that Wilner can really play. Thoroughly steeped in tradition, Wilner’s repertoire is a primer on American popular music that harkens back far enough to contain elements of Ragtime (“Solace”), Harlem stride (“If I Only Had a Brain”), and Tin Pan Alley (“Always”) without relinquishing any of the music’s current language. In recent years, jazz has moved slightly away from the principle that one of its functions is to entertain, and it’s refreshing to find a pianist capable of combining listener-friendly, tuneful improvisation with challenging lines, sophisticated chording and technical rigor.
The pianist, more than ably accompanied by bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Joey Saylor, likes to keep his program well integrated. A delicately beautiful composition like the title track will move from stillness to a subtle but powerful rocking, as bass and drums lock persuasively to kick up the ante. The impressionistic waltz “Always” will be followed by the two-handed study of “Lullaby of the Leaves,” and this in turn will lead to a speedy and fractious “After You’ve Gone.” “Little Girl Blue” might give a tip of the cap to Bill Evans, but Wilner is very much his own man here. The playing is deliberate, intimately in touch with melody. All three players listen closely to each other, working intelligently to construct a first rate ballad. They’re as convincing doing Monk: “Crepuscule with Nellie” is bluesy and authoritative. There are a lot of good pianists (and bassists and drummers) out there, and it’s easy to overlook some of them. Here are three who haven’t gotten the attention they’ve earned. Hopefully La Tendresse will serve to address this oversight. It is a very satisfying album from start to finish.