Pianist/composer Charlie Dennard weaves together music from his native New Orleans with strains from the iconic jazz label ECM on Deep Blue, featuring seven original compositions. Dennard credits his subtle, relaxed style to his teacher, the legendary pianist Ellis Marsalis, with whom Dennard studied for a Master’s Degree in Music at the University of New Orleans. This mix of earthly NOLA rhythms and ethereal world sounds is special, owing to Dennard’s exposure to many world cultures. All tunes are performed by Dennard on an array of keyboards with a core trio of Max Moran (acoustic/electric bass) and Doug Belote (drums) with additional musicians on select tracks that we’ll mention later.
For the past two decades Dennard has performed with the top musicians in New Orleans across an array of genres. He is currently on a year-long European tour as the musical director for Cirque du Soleil’s production “Totem.” Over the past 15 years, he has performed over 4,000 shows in 14 countries with Cirque, including appearances on The Tonight Show and at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Given his busy schedule, this project took a long time to complete. Yet, he recorded it on his recently rebuilt 1927 Steinway Model L grand piano, which is the primary keyboard heard throughout. Listen closely to hear Dennard’s blues and gospel influences amidst this deeply soulful, world-imbued collection of tunes.
He opens with the trio on “St. Charles Strut,” adding the requisite funk along with Latin flair and second line rhythms as his piano floats rather than pounds away. The sound quickly shifts on “Mojave,” an award-winning tune that was written when he was graduate student and has since been covered by several artists. Musicians from the Cirque show join – Josh Geisler (bansuri flute), Marc Solis (flute, alto & tenor sax, bass clarinet), Carlos Lopez (percussion), Andrew McClean (table, sarod) and Eric Lucero (trumpet). Dennard has a relaxed bluesy solo amidst the desert imagery delivered by the woodwinds and percussion. For some, the tune may call to mind the late Randy Weston, who was heavily influenced by African music.
“Wanderlust” is somewhat similar in tone as it was influenced by Ralph Towner and the band Oregon. Although Dennard co-wrote the tune with guitarist Brian Seeger (who later appears on their collaboration “Father”), this one features renowned New Orleans guitarist Steve Masakowski on the acoustic, who trades melodic verses with Dennard’s glorious grand piano. The ECM-like vibe continues into the title track where Dennard’s meditative style of playing is enriched by Lucero on trumpet and Brad Walker on tenor sax.
The next two are done are done in trio format. “Trois Fois” means “three times” in French. The tune modulates between three key centers. He then turns to the electric piano in tribute to one of the instruments true pioneers, Joe Sample, on “Joe’s Crusade.” Interestingly, drummer Belote played with Joe Sample and his Creole Joe Band from New Orleans. “Father” closes, featuring another horn arrangement. Musicians here include: Ray Moore (flute, alto & tenor sax), Jason Mingledorf (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Rick Trolsen (trombone, Eric Lucero (trumpet) and Seeger on guitar. It has a gospel/spiritual feel as it’s dedicated to the passing of Dennard’s dad, just after the final mix and mastering of the song.
Although the instrumentation and compositions are quite different, there are times when Dennard’s ECM-like sound is comparable to that of the Judy Night Quintet that we covered earlier this month. But, as the title suggests, this is a bit more bluesy given Dennard’s background and the presence of NOLA musicians.
- Jim Hynes