Destination out

Leo Genovese tries to play what he doesn’t know; plus David Torn’s Prezens
By JON GARELICK  |  March 24, 2008

THE UNKNOWING: For a virtuoso like Genovese, it’s not always easy to find the unexplored territories he craves.
In a town bursting with young musical talent, Leo Genovese might be the most explosive. The 29-year-old Argentine pianist, who came to Boston to study at Berklee in September 2001, is a typical jazz-scene multi-tasker. He’s a regular in the band of young bass star Esperanza Spalding (a former classmate) and that of one of his mentors, the highly esteemed veteran trombonist and composer Hal Crook. With the rest of the rhythm section from Crook’s band — drummer Bob Gullotti and bassist Dave Zinno — he’s part of the collaborative trio Planet Safety. He’s also in a free-jazz trio, the Sewer Rats (who play the multimedia “Beehive-Art-Scope 1” on Tuesday), and he leads another outfit that operates mostly as a quartet, the Chromatic Gauchos, who are at Ryles this Friday.

Like plenty of young virtuosos, Genovese has great fingers. But it’s what he’s hearing that has compelled jazz fans and fellow musicians. His imagination makes his performances of even the most familiar material unpredictable. Playing a standard, he continually teases with expectation and defers resolution. Even his most free playing has an inner logic, precision, and transparency — like Bud Powell or Cecil Taylor channeling Pierre Boulez.

“I’ve not heard any pianist who’s excited me as much as Leo has since I got here in 1980,” says Boston jazz pianist Bert Seager. “When he plays, you can see the relaxation in his hands and body, but there’s also this tension in the harmonies he’s creating. He’ll be playing so obliquely, and then he’ll land on a chord as if to give a kind of reassurance: ‘Okay, I’m still here!’ I’ve heard Leo play where I didn’t recognize one chord the entire night.”

At a Regattabar show with the Chromatic Gauchos back in February, Genovese began at the acoustic grand piano, hitting it hard for the first chord and then rumbling out a florid fantasia across the full range of the keyboard. Then he shifted into a fast beboppish line full of spastic leaping intervals before being joined by Dan Blake on soprano sax moving in unison on the same line (Anthony Braxton’s “Composition 4G”). Bass and drums came in on a fast straight-ahead rhythm that soon turned old-school free-bop, driven by Gullotti and bassist John Lockwood — the rhythm team from Boston’s venerated avant-garde trio the Fringe. Genovese moved to his electric keyboards, his left hand barking out chords on a Fender Rhodes, the right skittering across the Yamaha on top of it. It was heady and exhilarating.

Before the night was over, Genovese brought up Spalding as a special guest, to sing and play in duo with Lockwood. Even on Genovese’s tuneful “PPH,” Spalding’s light, wordless vocals floated over an elusive meter that changed on almost every bar. A tune called “Rock” did just that, and another Spalding vocal feature, “Chacarera,” approached the folkloric 6/8 Argentine dance form abstractly. Genovese — diminutive, dark, bearded — has a mischievous, elfin presence behind the keyboard, and a wicked laugh, and it’s a hoot to watch the glamorous, Afro’d Spalding trade deadpan responses to his broken-English effusions. His humor and warmth are part of what prevents his music from becoming forbidding.

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