By Dean Christesen
If the album as a whole is pianist Justin Kauflin's introduction, then track one is the first impression. On drummer Billy Williams's composition The Covenant," Kauflin's personality comes out right away: unpretentious, creative, and assertive with a fluidity that makes the tune's 5/4 time feel as natural as ever. This release marks the Virginia Beach native's debut as a leader, and along with his remarkable abilities on his instrument, it's his and his bandmates' young ages that give Introducing life.
Fives and sevens. Sixes into fives. Some (but not many) fours. While not completely eschewing common time, this young band of 20-somethings doesn't shy away from expressing themselves in time signatures other than 4/4. The album is bookended, even, by tunes in five: The Covenant" and Abide with Me," Henry Lyte's nineteenth-century hymn that Thelonious Monk would eventually record, are both in the odd meter.
For these guys, though, time is a strong suit. Their rhythmic strength is intrinsic in their playing, which often flies skillfully over barlines to build big and unpredictable phrases. For example, Kauflin's arrangement of The Beatles' A Day in the Life" explores multiple strains between sections in 6 and 5, all after a simple and elegant piano verse. The piece hits a huge climax after a massive piano solo, then cools. Kauflin always knows where he's going, and he makes that quite clear. His solos are a smooth elevator ride to the observation deck, where the sights are breathtaking. Some pressure is taken off of Williams, who is known to be a backline motivator and a drummer who can steer a solo when needed. Instead, the drummer joins the smooth ride and plays the role of an excellent supporter, contributing to Kauflin's off-kilter (as far as traditional phrases go) melodic ideas.
Although it's in 4/4, Exodus" has a unique vibe to it (but maybe that's because it's in 4/4, along with only two other tunes on the album). It's a not-quite samba, dark with moments of light shining through. Kauflin embellishes the melody with glimpses of strong left- hand counterpoint, and at other times tight clusters while his right hand strings along amazingly fluid lines and skip-filled scales. Be Thou My Vision" is a meaningful choice for Kauflin, who has been blind since the age of 11. He brings new meaning to the hymn, re- harmonizing it and igniting it with impassioned playing.
Guests alto saxophonist and Maryland native Tim Green and guitarist Etan Haziza appear on a couple tunes. Green graces two pieces near the front of the album. His jaunty playing and bright tone intensify whatever tunes he's present on; in this album's case, The Covenant" and Wynton Marsalis's Delfeayo's Dilemma," which features an extended saxophone solo.
Haziza joins the band for Kauflin's Lucid Thoughts," adding a new timbre through unison and harmony with the piano. He opts for waiting for his turn to solo instead of intruding on Kauflin's space with unnecessary chord comping. When Haziza finally does enter, he exudes a Rosenwinkel-like tone in a solo that takes shape as it progresses. Around these parts, Kauflin needs no introduction. But to those who are not yet familiar, this first impression is likely to leave a mark.