Keys that Please

As a vehicle of expression, the piano is truly an orchestra in a box and is largely without peers in the family of music instruments. Gifted pianists have 88 golden keys at their disposal which can be used to unlock secret worlds and explore the widest range of themes and emotions. The four world class artists featured here are all masters of their craft, and each has his own highly personal way of bringing the keyboard to life.

Arturo O’Farrill is a special case. The son of the late Cuban composer and bandleader Chico O’Farrill, Arturo has emerged in recent years as one of the most versatile pianists on the very competitive New York City scene. He fronts a variety of small groups and leads the distinguished Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra to keep his father’s legacy alive. On The Noguchi Sessions (zoho), he puts his well honed technique under a microscope as he tackles a dozen works in a solo setting where there’s nowhere to hide. It’s the proverbial tightrope act that separates the piano world’s men from its boys. The program includes six originals by the pianist and six standards, including “O’Susanna,” the quintessentially American folk song, and such iconic Latin American works as Ernesto Lecuona’s “Siboney.” Arturo’s readings, however, are anything but standard. He is a storyteller who deftly mixes generous amounts of drama, technical bravado and inquisitive musings into his performances. The Noguchi Sessions is an entrancing delight.

If ever a musician had the power to make the listener break out in a big grin with the voicing of a single chord, it’s the Dominican superhero of the piano world, Michel Camilo. His performances are so passionate and imbued with a quantifiable feeling of pure joy that his music is impossible to resist. Mano a Mano (Emarcy), his latest, is an unqualified tour de force, loaded with an uncommon blend of virtuosity and warmth that has become his trademark. It is also energized by a high quotient of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, thanks to the presence of Puerto Rican conguero Giovanni Hidalgo and Cuba-born bassist Charles Flores. While Mano a Mano boasts a strong undercurrent of this brand of rhythmic synergy on tracks like “Rice and Beans” and “Rumba Pa’ Ti,” the lovely Argentine standard “Alfonsina y El Mar,” an elegant and stately theme, allows Michel and his trio to relax and create a blissful interlude of tranquility.

Composer and pianist Guillermo Klein, a Buenos Aires native who has made the U.S. his base of operations for the past two decades, takes a decidedly different route in his use of the 88 keys to craft his music identity. Leading his band Los Gauchos on Carrera (Sunnyside), Guillermo employs a minimalist approach, fashioning moody, sonically translucent soundscapes that slowly draw the listener, one icy, lingering chord at a time, into his complex, angst-tinged world. While often thematically dark, Guillermo’s creations will delight those with a lust for something consciously detached from ordinary references. Puerto Rican saxophonist Miguel Zenón is one of several outstanding soloists who are members of Los Gauchos and help the leader refine the group’s personality on such challenging tracks as the first movement of Alberto Ginastera’s “Piano sonata op. 22.” It combines elements of folkloric influences, chamber music and avant-garde leaning jazz concepts to further define the unique Los Gauchos sound.

Brazilian pianist Antonio Adolfo has been a force in his country’s popular music since the 1960s, writing songs that became hits for groups like Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66. Also an educator, he operates music academies in both Florida, where he now lives, and Rio de Janeiro. As an educator, Antonio has always been eager to expose listeners to new rhythms and styles, and that’s what shapes the masterfully conceived and performed program of 11 works on Chora Baião (AAM Music). He focuses primarily on choro and baião, two musical idioms that evolved in the late 19th Century and reflect a chamber music kind of formality in their structure. Leading a quintet that features his vocalist daughter Carol Saboya on two tracks, Antonio’s takes on these little known styles provides a refreshing respite from the conventional. Impossible to resist songs like Chico Buarque’s capricious “A Ostra e o Vento” burn slowly, oozing a tropical essence that sparks a sense of delight.

Mark Holston