Craig Hartley/Books on Tape V. 1: This jazz piano man waited until he was 31 to unleash a record like this? Whew. How is he going to top himself? A swinger with a bigger storehouse of energy than a gas refinery, Hartley is in the tradition all the way but he’s also his own man all the way. An utterly killer piano trio date that should be in as many cardio emergency rooms as defibrillators, you are going to be wondering where this bad cat has been all your life. Chalk this up as one of the great debuts of all time. —Midwest Record
Craig Hartley is a restless, but meticulous sponge of a student, absorbing and redirecting the churning world around him. His first album as a leader is this final expository exam, an exemplary, stunning accumulation of casual understanding, keen accuracy, fluidity of movement, and a far out taste level.
Hartley made “Books On Tape Vol. 1” at 31, writing all but one of the tracks and working the traditional jazz trio to the bone — kudos to bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Henry Cole, as well as guest artists Fabio Morgera on trumpet and Dida Pelled on vocals. As the bandleader, composer, and pianist, Hartley drew from a mesmerizing list of traditional and contemporary artists in his head to reinvigorate the jazz brand with a youthful verve, almost casually leveling the playing field. No disrespect.
“Dial 411” — a dizzying wanton ride and tribute to teacher/mentor Gary Dial — charges right out of the gate in a compulsive hurry. Hartley’s definitely in charge, showing what he’s learned from Dial’s lessons in a fully realized summative, literally and figuratively. “‘Dial 411’ started as an assignment for one of Dial’s lessons,” Hartley explained in his liner notes. “Dial introduced me to a variety of musical concepts, now vital to how I think about and write music. However, the most valuable piece of knowledge I learned from Dial was how to develop my own concepts and musical voice.”
“Books On Tape” came about when Hartley was quite literally a student dying for access to some fine practice digs, like Yale University. He said he would “sneak into Yale’s practice rooms and play for hours, something I continue to do today. You can imagine the variety of musicians one would hear: pianists, vocal groups, various classical ensembles, among other talents.” This song picks up on all that young, fresh practicing talent, coalescing the various sounds, refracting all that hope, the probing, tentative first steps of a student gathering knowledge and confidence. “Books On Tape” flows from a strange, new classical period, vaguely touched by ancient traditions, into strange, new post-bop territory — all under Hartley’s lyrical, restless, and configured piano press. His guys De Rosa and Cole travel with him around every surprising corner, infiltrating Afro-Cuban and desolate Parisian Monk ministry. By the end, they’ve wrapped up their practice around the globe nicely, returning somewhere between Hartley’s artful jazz lessons and something else he’s cooked up entirely on his own.
Hartley carried all that education around — Manhattan School of Music, New York City’s New School, Hartford, CT’s Hartt School of Music, Dial, Jackie Mclean, Joe Chambers, Andy Laverne — to teach his own multiple master classes and work with some fairly impressive names on the music roster (Grammy nominee Morgera, Anthony Braxton, Eddie Henderson, Mario Pavone, Steve Davis, John Benitez, Steve Slagle, Claudio Roditi, E.J. Strickland), as well as the New Jazz Workshop, a musician’s collective. An alumni of Dezron Douglas and Lummie Span’s New Jazz Workshop, Hartley got to be a part of Wynton Marsalis’ band at a “Beyond The Storm” Hurricane Katrina benefit once.
Armed with a very good education and remarkable on-the-job training, this student grew into his own as an original solo artist in short order, where the sky’s the limit. He’s already written music and modern dance performance pieces on commission, original vocal works, film soundtracks, multiple ensemble projects, like Jim Oblon’s Thin Veil (Paul Simon, Phil Ramone, Jim Keltner are members, too) and the original Small Multiples with guitarist Eli Friedmann and producer Aaron Nevezie (The Black Keys, Danger Mouse, Black Taxi).
“Books On Tape” first came out on the Italian Skidoo label in June of 2012, then was released as a self-produced record in the U.S. on September 3, 2013. It’s Hartley’s attempt to tell his stories his way. “As much as these works were inspired by specific occurrences, people, thoughts, moments, and emotions, they were also formed through that inexplicable, uncontrollably spontaneous creative process that takes the mentally stored past and employs it to fashion novel amalgamations that are sometimes recorded, sometimes nostalgically cherished, or sometimes too easily dismissed or discarded; this music reflects a combination of the symbiotic relationship between the spontaneous creative process and the subconscious reflective process that is memory, a present reflection on the temporally distanced past.”
“K2?” is another example of an original jazz tune with melodic flex. All points jazz and classical, Hartley’s piano moves through a ballet into a jerky performance art piece, then back again before the trio double-clicks an intimate modern jazz setting, where the bass gets some heavy love and the drums kick in significantly for a 7:30 beat. Hartley wrote “K2?” from his impressions of a favorite coffeehouse. It was at K2 that the budding musician would do some serious studying, of music and people. The assortment of styles — grounded in Hartley’s short, memorable melody — changes course, grifting between serious and silly, a reflection of the eclectic clientele and the pianist’s own reason for hanging out there. Breaking up the monotony of transcribing, which is what Hartley was often doing at the coffeehouse, this music takes care to grasp individual and collective profiles as if in a blur of pulled memory.
The only cover Hartley includes is by Victor Young and Ned Washington. And it’s a classic, “My Foolish Heart.” Hartley’s trio does it off course, naturally. The pianist jumped out of the starting line of the original into what he hoped was a compatible continuation. It’s an atypical yet blissfully straight jazz standard, laying behind the bones of the sentimental 1949 ballad. It’s considerably elevated in mood too. Gone is the wistful sorrow of a lost love permeating the downtrodden notes. Hartley quickens the pulse and the pace until he winds down at 6:18, leaving a trace of the romanticized sentimentality in the softening of his notes until there’s nothing left but another fond memory. “‘My Foolish Heart’ … is one of my favorite jazz standards,” Hartley wrote in the liner notes. He plays his version as a smitten fan wishing for a happier ending.
“Why Not” should be in the new modern jazz lexicon. Hartley opens up the recording to guest trumpeter Fabio Morgera, who brings the piano countdown melody to life, flashing the fireworks above the main line. Drummer Cole nearly steals the show with his sexy, shimmering flourishes.
Performing covers is hard enough for a jazz artist. But originals? Craig Hartley’s got them covered, too. Remember, he’s a good student.