The perception that just about everything that could be said on the most standard of standards had already been said combined with a vague sense that the truly grown-up jazz improviser should also be capable of writing his or her own material. The upshot across the last half century has been a staggering number of compositions – read “improvising vehicles” – that fall excruciatingly short of the standard set by the Great American Songbook and by the likes of Ellington, Mingus, Monk and Shorter.
Of course the exceptions are myriad, too, and new ways of combining composition and improvisation and fresh compositional forms have played a key part in jazz still having an open road before it, alongside all the cross-cultural options.
What I like about pianist John Harkins as a composer is the very fact that he is not prolific. He is not churning out tunes just to have something to play; rather, it would seem, he writes as the mood strikes him. On The Girl Next Door there are just three originals among the nine pieces, but not only do they stand up in the company of the astutely chosen standards, they include one tune that deserves to become a standard in its own right. It is called Kathleen Mary, and is performed with a bossa lilt to the rhythm, even if the gorgeous cadence to the melody suggests that certain malleability whereby it could have been swung, lightly funked or played as a ballad, and worked just as well.
Harkins’ opening Along Came Gracie, has a sprightly mid-tempo swing with just a hint of the Adderley Brothers about it, and the third original, Simply Grace, is an out-and-out bossa and a very elegant one.
That word elegant is one that could be used repeatedly about this music. Harkins, bassist Brendan Clarke and drummer Andrew Dickeson have arrived at a restrained, timeless, manicured approach to making jazz, in which no note is out of place. The corollary is that there are few surprises, but the grooves are always buoyant and the soloing vibrant. Among the standards they even make Michelle and Mona Lisa as completely their own as those originals. A charming record, indeed.
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