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What’s on Your Playlist – Tom Oren

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The winner of the 2018 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Piano Competition (renamed for the Herbie Hancock institute of Jazz in 2019), Israeli-born Tom Oren has been making a name for himself since graduating the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in 2015 and then continuing his studies at Berklee College of Music with the likes of Joanne Brackeen, Alain Mallet, and Dave Santoro.

Oren’s debut release, Dorly’s Song, finds him interpreting songs written by his mother, Dorly Oren Chazon, an acclaimed pianist and composer in Israel. Nearly all of the pieces were written well before Oren was born and he reframes these songs as jazz standards, joined by drummer Eviatar Slivnik, bassist Barak Mori, and special guest saxophonist Eli Degibri.

1. Art Blakey and the Jazz MessengersCaravan

What a hard-bop masterpiece, captivating from the very first moment – Blakey’s intro to “Caravan” – that invites you to this crazy ride. With the extraordinary power of his energy and personality, not only does he play breathtaking solos, but he also pushes every member of the band, and brings out the best in them throughout the record. The personnel is comprised of legends, and they all play magnificently here, making the whole much greater than the sum of its parts: Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Curtis Fuller, Cedar Walton and Reggie Workman. Two of my favorite tracks are the beautiful, rich and expressive Skylark arrangement, with the pedal point at the beginning of each A; and the title track, the opening number – “Caravan.” I can’t stay aloof when I hear this track, with the 6/8 groove that Blakey plays in his own amazing way, the beautiful voicings and lines in the background, the fast swing and the edgy solos, the dramatic intro and ending melodies: the finishing Cm(maj7) chord strikes me with such a force, like an inevitable conclusion.

2. Bill EvansYou Must Believe In Spring

Bill Evans’ swan song is such a heart-wrenching farewell letter, and a timeless masterpiece. This giant’s sound is so warm and his touch is so delicate, reminding us of his classical training; his voice-leadings are so elegant and marvelous. The interplay between him and his great partners, Eddie Gomez and Eliot Zigmund is fascinating and incredibly exciting. It’s also extremely satisfying to listen to Bill’s trio version of the only track he didn’t play on in Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue – “Freddie Freeloader,” coming full circle. But the title track is definitely the one that appeals to me the most. Bill’s expressive phrasing and passionate, poetic approach to this track, echo the lyrics and make this track so relevant to our time: “So in a world of snow, of things that come – and go, where what you think you know, you can’t be certain of – you must believe in spring… and love.”

3. Brad MehldauSongs: The Art of the Trio, Volume 3

This great album is so lyrical and passionate. As the title suggests, Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier and Jorge Rossy play so sensitively, letting the songs, stories and melodies speak for themselves. A wonderful example is “For All We Know,” which ends with a beautiful piano cadence that’s based on the standard’s theme, developing and expanding on it with such imagination. Other strong tracks are “River Man” and “Exit Music (For a Film)” – Brad is a genius, and he’s so rooted in Jazz tradition, that he can play true Jazz versions of folk and rock numbers, versions that are deep and compelling. But my personal favorite, above all, is Brad’s original composition, “Unrequited.” This piece is so poetic and poignant, so accurate, a wide line rising and falling expressively over a restless, relentless groove. After a burning climax, the track ends with a short, heart-rending, introverted statement, and leaves me speechless.


4. Bud Powell Jazz Giant

I fell in love with this record ever since I heard that solo break. I’m talking about Bud’s iconic solo break on his own composition, “Celia.” My first jazz private piano teacher, the great late Amit Golan, introduced me to that recording in one of our early lessons with a contagious passion. I got very emotional about it, determined to learn as much as I can about Powell and his style. There are so many remarkable tracks here. For example, the melody of “Celia” speaks with such expressive lines, and Bud’s solo is perfect. Then you have the “Cherokee” arrangement, so lively and rich, with it’s beautiful voice-leading. The whole personnel is consisted of jazz giants – Bud Powell on piano, Ray Brown and Curley Russel intermittently on bass, and Max Roach on drums, so yeah, I’d say the album’s title is pretty accurate. I cannot talk about this album without mentioning one of the most beautiful gems of jazz history: Bud, solo piano, playing his own ballad, “I’ll Keep Loving You.” With lush voicings, dynamic sensitivity and an expression full of soul, Bud makes the piano sing.

5. Count Basie Low Life

The great Count Basie Big Band is an endless source of joy and comfort, and always lifts my spirit. I used to listen to this particular album, “Low Life,” as a kid, sitting in the back seat of the car in our family rides. A lot of classics are here – “Jumpin’ At the Woodside,” “Shiny Stockings,” “April In Paris,” and “The Kid From Red Bank,” all performed with such fresh quality, drive and raw energy. This album also introduced to me a tune that would become one of my favorite ballads, in the most beautiful Big Band arrangements – “Pensive Miss.” Other tracks I especially love are the beautiful “Indian Summer,” in the warm key of A Flat, and “Low Life,” swinging so hard, and featuring one of Basie’s most tasteful piano intros. His grace, the count, says so much with such small, subtle nuances and touches – he’s always on point. It always puts a smile on my face, and it’s always humbling.

6. Herbie HancockThe Piano

It’s amazing, as one listens to this album, to be a part of something so personal and intimate, a trip in the mind and soul of a legend, just him and the piano. It just feels like he has all the time in the world, and an inner peace that opens him to the endless possibilities of the moment – melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, and beyond that, in terms of the essence of life and its transcendental realms. All that, with such a delicate touch, complete emotional devotion and an imagination that knows no bounds. I’m especially moved by Herbie’s originals “Harvest Tim,” full of warmth and purity of expression, and “Sonrisa,” where the contemplative, even melancholic melody and harmony are paired with an entrancing groove, creating an atmosphere of a magical dance. Towards the end, “Sonrisa” gradually fades, until it vanishes into the night, and one stands in awe and wonders: “Was the whole track just a beautiful, distant dream?…”

7. Joanne BrackeenSpecial Identity 

2018 NEA Jazz Master Joanne Brackeen should appear in the dictionary under the definition of “Special Identity!” The great Thelonious S. Monk was quoted as saying, “A genius is the one most like himself,” and that’s exactly the case with Joanne. To listen to her just being herself giving you such a full, rich picture of herself – adventurous, brave, curious, mystic, intimate, deep, and even humorous… I just find it immensely inspiring. You get an idea of what true freedom sounds like, what it means to be connected to the forces of nature, and you’re just filled with courage. Just listen to Joanne’s original “Egyptian Dune Dance:” so vivid, unique, certainly ahead of its time and yet remains fresh to this very day, and how these incredible artists – Joanne, Eddie Gomez, and Jack DeJohnette – dance together, and let their spirits run wild. The final track, “Friday the Thirteenth” is also a marvelous example of that free spirit, and the trio swings so hard!


8. Miles DavisNefertiti

It seems like all there is to say about Miles’ second great quintet has already been said, but I believe we’ll never talk about it enough. Personally, it just redefined what I thought “darkness” was in music and gave it a whole new meaning. Until I heard this album, I used to think dark music had to do with certain harmonic colors, like a sequence of minor chords a major or minor third apart from each other, or dissonant melodic intervals: basically, I focused on the content, the “what.” But then, I heard “Nefertiti” and realized a crucial part of darkness was the “how” – as long as one is committed to the moment, willing to reach into the unknown, one can play what many people would consider bright colors, such as a Lydian melody or harmony, and make them sound dark in tone, in context, because they weren’t prepared – they were drawn out of the mist, born out of darkness. That’s one of the inspiring lessons I learn whenever I listen to this courageous band: Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. The tracks that appeal to me the most are “Nefertiti” (Wayne Shorter), the haunting melody that is played over and over again, but never the same way twice, developing constantly in expression and intensity; “Fall,” “Pinocchio” (Wayne Shorter), and “Riot” (Herbie Hancock).


9. Oscar Peterson Night Train

I love this album! This was one of the first jazz albums I’ve ever listened to, and I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for this masterpiece. I’ve kept coming back to it, discovering new fascinating nuances each time. Oscar is a true giant, and to hear this brilliant virtuoso with the unbelievable technique, playing throughout the album so simply (yet never simplistically), so soulfully and deeply, is incredibly humbling. The trio, with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen, is a school for swing and blues. Ray Brown’s solo on the opening track, “Night Train,” is iconic and Ed Thigpen joining Oscar’s majestic tremolo with a snare roll on “Hymn to Freedom,” gives this album’s divine concluding track its emotional peak. The album works perfectly as a cohesive statement, but the bonus tracks are amazing as well – especially the unique, surprising rendition of “This Could Be the Start of Something.”


10. Paul Simon So Beautiful or So What

I love and admire Paul Simon’s work, both lyrically and musically. One of the most inspiring things about this wise poet is the fact that although his starting point was already so deep – he wrote “Sound of Silence” while in his 20s, and included it on the first Simon & Garfunkel album from 1964 – he has just kept getting deeper and deeper intellectually and emotionally, moving forward as an artist: constantly innovating, open to absorb influences from all over the world, and reinventing himself. So Beautiful or So What, his 2011 release, is the result of this attitude, and a shining testimony to it. One of my favorite tracks is “Love and Hard Times”: here, he zooms in lyrically from talking about God, creation, galaxies, through insights about human nature, all the way to the intimate “Thank God I Found You in Time,” connecting the universal with the personal. The melody is beautiful, and it’s complimented by a rich harmony, smooth and moving harmonic transitions, and a colorful orchestration. “Questions for the Angels” is another strong ballad, elaborating on the theme of our place in the world and our relationship with the planet. There are also some amazing groovy numbers, poignant texts and dark humor, and it’s all building up to the title track. In this powerful song, Paul deals with personal, social and philosophical issues, and leaves us to make the ultimate choice: “You know, life is what you make of it – so beautiful or so what.”

Tom Oren’s debut album, Dorly’s Song (Concord Records), will be released on October 30, 2020. www.tomoren.com

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