Persistence pays off for Michael Weiss

pianist and composer Michael Weiss
pianist and composer Michael Weiss

You can tell a lot about a musician by the company he keeps. The star-studded resume that pianist and composer Michael Weiss has quietly assembled over the past 40 years proves that some of the greatest names in jazz have long considered Weiss one of the best in the business. Heavyweights Johnny Griffin, George Coleman, Charles McPherson, Benny Golson, Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Heath, Art Farmer, Frank Wess, Bill Hardman, Junior Cook, Slide Hampton, and Jon Hendricks have all tapped Weiss for their working bands.

“Michael is very inventive and creative, and he has been for a very long time,” says tenor saxophonist George Coleman. “He’s harmonically adept and has a fantastic right hand. He’s gifted. He deserves more attention.”

Alto saxophonist Charles McPherson puts it this way: “Michael has done his homework. He has a real understanding of the language, has really good taste, and he has a great feel and touch. He’s also got a sense of artistry as well as craft, and he’s got dimension and range. He understands not only the bebop language but other music that grows out of that. He’s comfortable in more than one world, and not everybody is like that.”

Persistence, Weiss’ fifth recording as a leader and first on the Cellar Live label will drop 18 February 2022, and brings together all the qualities that have made him such a valued member of New York’s jazz community since the 1980s.

Deeply swinging and emotionally rewarding, the recording features four vibrant originals by Weiss that are rich with memorable melody, harmonic color, rhythmic vitality, savvy pacing, and expressive detail. Weiss also arranged four standards that reveal his ability to put a thoughtful individual stamp on diverse material by Thelonious Monk, Fats Waller, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Jimmy Van Heusen.

Weiss’ improvisations sparkle. Keeping head and heart in perfect balance, his spontaneous ideas flower organically from the distinctive seeds of each composition and arrangement. When he cedes the spotlight, his attentive accompaniment lights a fire under his bandmates.

His first-rate quartet, including the exciting tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, and the cohesive bass-and-drum team of Paul Gill and Pete Van Nostrand, illustrates Weiss’ ability to project a band in his own image.

“This recording is a snapshot, like any night on a gig,” says Weiss. “I’m satisfied with the way the band interpreted and contributed to the songs and how everything comes across. It’s one thing to write, arrange, and organize the material, but it’s another thing how it’s all realized.”

For a quick primer on Weiss’ approach, listen to his “Après Vous.” (The title refers to the song’s harmonic foundation, based on the standard “After You’ve Gone.”) The pianist roars out of the gate, improvising fluently for 16 bars with bass and drums right on his tail. Then comes a piano vamp with an animated written bass line and Latin rhythms on the drums.

The vamp and bass line continue as Alexander plays Weiss’ instantly hummable melody. The alternating swing and Latin rhythms, counterlines in the bass, alluring harmony, and numerous stop-time rhythm section hits all wink at one of Weiss’ first heroes, pianist-composer Horace Silver. Note, too, the fine detail of Weiss playing some of the melodic breaks in unison with Alexander’s tenor. And don’t miss how the tenor solo comes shooting out of the melody like a canon.

This recording is a snapshot, like any night on a gig,..

Michael Weiss

“Michael’s compositions sound totally natural, but they are challenging to play because there’s such a specificity to them and a complexity too,” says Alexander. “It’s hard to sight read a Michael Weiss composition, but it’s easy to listen to a Michael Weiss composition for all the same reasons.”

Each of the tracks on Persistence rewards close listening. The title track scampers along with an enigmatic melody supported by evolving harmonies that grab the ear. “Second Thoughts” is a playful line that unfolds at a relaxed, irresistible medium groove. “Paul and Pete are really in the pocket,” says Weiss. The pianist turns in one of his best solos on the date. Beautifully realized melodies snake through the harmony, snapping with syncopation, swing, and soul. You can hear his affinity for pianists like Bud Powell, Barry Harris, and Sonny Clark, but Weiss never sounds like a copy. He plays himself.

Michael Weiss with Eric Alexander, Paul Gill & Pete Van Nostrand.
Michael Weiss with Eric Alexander, Paul Gill & Pete Van Nostrand.

“Only the Lonely” opens a window on the more reflective and vulnerable side of Weiss’ personality as he offers a gorgeous trio version of Jimmy Van Heusen’s beautiful song — one of many that the composer and lyrist Sammy Cahn created for Frank Sinatra.

Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and Jobim’s “Once I Loved” reinvent familiar songs with savvy plotting. Note how on the latter, Weiss uses the tenor sax only to deliver the vamp that frames the melody.

Weiss’ solo builds in waves, winking occasionally at McCoy Tyner, and Alexander gets in a few licks over the concluding fade out. The quartet delivers Monk’s “Epistrophy” with elan, capturing the composer’s jubilant spirit.

The finger-popping “Birthday Blues” concludes the recording with freewheeling soloing over one of the fundamental forms of jazz — a fitting coda to an expansive recital.

One additional reason Persistence emits such a glowing warmth is that it was taped at the studio built by legendary engineer Rudy Van Gelder in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. This was Weiss’ first trip back to Van Gelder’s studio since the pianist’s debut LP, Presenting Michael Weiss (Criss Cross) in 1987. “There’s a vibe there,” says Weiss. “It’s comforting and inspiring.”

The striking quality of Persistence brings up a question: Why has it been so long since Weiss’ last recording as a leader, the critically acclaimed Soul Journey (Sintra) in 2003? Weiss turned down multiple opportunities because the terms were not ideal. Cellar Live provided the necessary conditions and creative freedom to showcase his art. The results are worth the wait.

About Michael Weiss

Since arriving in New York in 1982, pianist and composer Michael Weiss has forged a formidable career working in the bands of jazz legends Johnny Griffin, Art Farmer, Charles McPherson, George Coleman, Jimmy Heath, and Lou Donaldson.

He was a longtime member of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra and toured with the Jazztet and Mingus Epitaph Orchestra. Weiss’ 15-year association with Griffin yielded four recordings and annual tours throughout the USA and around the world. Weiss has also performed with Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, Clark Terry, Clifford Jordan, Gary Bartz, Phil Woods, Pepper Adams, Joe Lovano, Nancy Wilson, Randy Brecker, Tom Harrell, Wynton Marsalis, Al Foster, and Pete La Roca Sims.

Weiss’ previous recordings as a leader are: Presenting Michael Weiss (Criss Cross), Power Station (DIW), Milestones (SteepleChase), and Soul Journey (Sintra). In addition to his recordings with Griffin, Weiss appears as a sideman on recordings by Charles McPherson, Frank Wess, Steve Grossman, Vanguard Jazz Orchestra, Ronnie Cuber, Louis Smith, Dick Oatts, and others.

As a bandleader, Weiss has headlined at every major New York jazz venue, including the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, Jazz Standard, Birdland, Bradley’s, Iridium, Sweet Basil, and Smoke. He has also headlined at the Detroit Jazz Festival, Smithsonian Institution, and George Wein’s Kool Jazz Festival in New York.

Weiss has toured as a leader throughout America, France, and Italy. Wayne Shorter presented Weiss with the grand prize of the 2000 BMI/Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Composition Competition. Weiss was also a 1989 prizewinner in the Thelonious Monk Institute’s International Piano Competition.

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