Coming Down Roses
His name is not yet widely known but this writer first became familiar with Pennsylvania-bred pianist and composer Billy Test when he and trio mates, bassist Evan Gregor and drummer Ian Froman backed Dave Liebman in last year’s Invitation by The Generations Quartet. Having studied with Liebman while pursuing his master’s at Manhattan School of Music, Test first played with Gregor in a Liebman-led band in 2015, and, shortly after, began playing gigs with both Gregor and Froman. As typically happens, Test’s name began to appear in other places too, mostly notably as the pianist in Cologne Germany’s WDR Big Band directed by Bob Mintzer. You’ll find Test in Blue Soul, which the WDR Big Band did with Dave Dtryker and most recently in Soundscapes, their 2021 release. Those alone are impressive sideman gigs, but Coming Down Roses represents Test’s debut as a bandleader.
These are mostly Test originals with one standard and a tune from a lesser-known composer who is a hero to the trio. The album begins with the Cole Porter standard “All of You” in an arrangement that features some new harmonics. The first original “Spinning” shows a more restrained, graceful side, beginning with Gregor and Test in unison on the melody, evolving to a lyrical bass solo and a reflective but bright piano solo while Froman applies the soft brush touches. Test’s “Fate” was inspired by trying to adapt to the culture on a new country, another rich example of his lyricism and dynamics that find him alternating from clusters of notes to singular notes that he suspends in unhurried fashion.
“Hardly” is a contrafact on “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise,” distilled down to its basic structure. It begins with piano and drums, setting up the bass entrance, some dialogue between Test and Froman, before the latter explodes in his solo. “Empty Spaces” was written for Test’s deceased father on the tenth anniversary of his passing. It’s a solo piano piece, that like “Fate,” showcases Test’s command of dynamics, subtle in some places and intensely building in others. The title track is one of the best examples of the tight interplay of this unit on the disc, and each has their own turn as well.
“The Prince” was composed by the largely unknown John Coates Jr. who was a major influence on Keith Jarrett early on and is a hero of the Pennsylvania-based trio. The title is an homage to one of Coates’ own heroes, former Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant. It opens with a warm bass intro form Froman before forming a soft melody with strains that may echo Jarrett to careful listeners. The wild “Mother’s Day With Freud” began as a joke among friends. It shows the freer, more explorative side of the trio. Finally, “Belonging,” is the antidote to its frenetic predecessor, reflective in tone and slow in pace, as if to give the listener pause to digest all that has transpired over the nine selections.
Again, the pace of the album, its sound, the interplay, and above all, Test’s astute command of dynamics make this the kind of impressive debut that leaves us wanting to hear more from the young pianist. He is one to watch.
- Jim Hynes
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