Aaron Diehl: Pianist’s performance displays jazz history

Aaron Diehl
The Columbus Dispatch

Columbus-bred pianist Aaron Diehl displayed a wide-ranging mastery of 100 years of jazz performance as well as an impressive historical scholarship, during a musical homecoming in the Lincoln Theatre on Sunday night. Alone and under the spotlight on his Steinway grand, the Julliard graduate and Wynton Marsalis sideman held rapt an audience of jazz fanatics, family, and friends for two hours.

He did so, not by programing a collection of familiar standards, though this writer has heard him make magic with the jazz cannon on several occasions. Rather, he chose to celebrate the music’s unsung heroes and focus on unique compositions which carry historical weight.

The first set opened with improvisations based on selected poems from Albert Murray--critic, novelist and friend to Ralph Ellison. Read by WCBE’s Jack Marchbanks, the short lyric incantations of jazz culture were followed by Diehl’s inventions on their themes.

The first, which suggested Duke Ellington among others, featured a fine conversation between the pianist’s right and left hands in an inspired ramble that touched on stride piano and ragtime. The most memorable began with an askew improvisation on Thelonious Monk’s “Coming On The Hudson” and segued into a succulent reading of his “Ruby, My Dear.”

The central part of the first set was dedicated to pianist Dick Hyman’s ambitious set of original etudes tracing the history of jazz piano from Scott Joplin to Bill Evans with short compositions reflecting each of its 15 honorees.

Highlights from the collection included “Struttin’ On A Summer Day,” for Earl Hines, which featured a few marvelous musical asides; “Irish Stride,” for Fats Waller with its sly humor and joviality; the short “Ocean Languor,” for Duke Ellington, which was nonetheless romantic and elegant; and “Passage,” a deeply moving, exquisitely introspective tribute to Bill Evans.

Closing the first half, Diehl’s improvisation on a piece by Philip Glass was most interesting for its illustration of the composer’s flexibility.
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