Tony Moreno Reclaims His Life After the Hurricane with an Epically Tuneful New Album
What do you do when a storm takes everything you own? You buckle down and create a new body of work. That’s what Tony Moreno did. After Hurricane Sandy destroyed his compositions, and drums, and even memorabilia from his famous harpist mother, Nina Dunkel Moreno, the drummer/composer took a monthly residency at 55 Bar and worked up enough new material for an epic new double album, Short Stories, streaming at Spotify. Moreno’s compositions here tend to be on the lavish side, running seven or eight minutes at a clip: this album really feels like a couple of live sets. Uneasily clustering, distantly Lennie Tristano-ish piano is livened by expressive and sometimes explosive playing: Moreno comes off sobered if ultimately none the worse for all the trauma. It’s a chance to hear pianist Jean-Michel Pilc deliver some of his most otherworldly thrilling work and witness tenor saxophone powerhouse Marc Mommaas in unexpectedly rapturous mode alongside lyrical trumpeter Ron Horton, perennially popular bassist Ugonna Okegwo and Moreno swinging behind his new drumkit. Moreno and his group are back at 55 Bar this Wednesday, Dec 15 at 7 PM.
Moreno got a start on piano as a youngster but became a protege of Elvin Jones – with whom he later would share a stage, albeit on piano. Moreno is more chill than his mentor here, propelling the tunes with equal parts fire and finesse, drums up enough in the mix to capture his nuances without distracting from the whole. The album’s opening number, Foxy Trot (titles are not Moreno’s forte) opens with Pilc’s eerie, Mompou-esque belltones and quickly rises to a briskly floating swing with high-voltage solos from both Mommaas and Horton. By contrast, Mommaas’ ballad Little One features the saxophonist in rare, airy, delicate mode. The West’s Best juxtaposes Pilc’s Messiaenic gravitas with Horton’s similarly wary lines over Moreno’s elegant tumbles, then follow an increasingly gritty drive fueled by Mommaas and Pilc.
Errol Garner, a shout-out to the pianist, has a richly lingering unease carried by Pilc’s clustering lines and Mommaas’ enigmatically circling phrases. 55 Scotch builds from an acerbically catchy Frank Foster-ish hook to rapidfire swing and a neat handoff from Mommaas to Horton, Pilc playing good cop againt the bandleader’s blockbuster assault. Susan’s Dream is more of a lurking nightmare, through a surreal piano-bass dialogue, Mommass’ haggard solo turning it over to Okegwo’s misterioso ballet. It’s the album’s most harrowing number.
No Blues to You makes for a contrasting, lickety-split feature for Horton that Pilc pushes further into the shadows. The first disc closes with an expansively lush take of Ellington’s C Jam Blues punctuated by the occasional suspenseful pause.
Disc two opens with a similarly tender take of Kenny Wheeler’s Three for D’Reen and its judicious echo phrases. Oh, Henry, Moreno’s magnum opus here, shifts artfully in and out of waltz rhythm, Pilc’s glimmering neoromantic colors front and center, Horton’s blazing solo followed by an unexpectedly nebulous one from Mommaas and a triumphantly flickering outro. The band follows Grovelling, a lengthy, shapeshifting Horton vehicle, with the first of two versions of El Rey, a serpentine, majestic flamenco-jazz gem with that recalls Chano Dominguez.
M.O. follows a counterintuitive path downward from a bright opening into a spacious swing shuffle with solos all around, Pilc and Moreno each building back toward a big crescendo. Pueblo de Lagrimas is a return to slow, somber, latin-inflected majesty, lowlit by Pilc’s lyrical solo, Horton raising the ante while Moreno prowls and chooses his spots. The album wins up with the second take of El Rey, the king clearly back on top in what was once a very sad city.