New York based pianist/organist Dan Kaufman is a former student of Fred Hersch and over the last few years has been building a strong reputation as a sideman for many artists including Jimmy Heath, Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Mark Turner, Donald Harrison and many more. “Familiar Places” is his debut album, released on the Brooklyn based label Red Piano Records. The recording, made up of eight Kaufman original compositions, boasts an excellent line-up, with guitarist Gilad Hekselman, drummer Johnathan Blake, bassist Matt Clohesy, saxophonist Sam Sadigursky and percussionist Keita Ogawa all adding their combined talents to the pianist’s tunes. Kaufman explains the premise behind the album; “To put it simply, I wanted to make a record that I would want to listen to. Something that had memorable melodies, that was accessible but at the same time challenging and stimulating for the players as well as for the listener. A record that felt honest and personal.” And those words, honest and personal, definitely come across in the music. There’s a really nice ‘homely’ feel to the recording, warm and relaxed… enjoyable. This, I would imagine, is in no small part due to the fact that the composer/pianist has had long term musical relationships with the other musicians, allowing for them to be at ease with each other, their kinship emanating from the music being created. “Familiar Places” is a collection of tunes that Kaufman has written over the last ten years. He elaborates; “They are like little places, familiar, yet somehow new and unique. Each tune has a specific character, mood, structure, groove and concept. The goal of the record was to freely explore these places as an ensemble by capturing the seance of each composition.”
The session opens with “Windshadow”, a modern uptempo jazz waltz. There’s a folksy quality to the tune, its melody evoking pictures of a walk through an enchanted forest, lush and crisp as the morning sun rises up through the gaps in the tall trees. The bluesy, Afro-Cuban inspired groove of “Kuumba” has a genuine happiness to it. Sounding like a celebration of the pleasure that we are gifted with from dance and song, it is in fact so named for the trombonist Frank Kuumba Lacy who used to sing the tune during gigs at The Smoke, the uptown New York club. There’s plenty of character in Kaufman’s writing, always accessible but with an eclectic bent, with a slightly quirky sense of humour coming through. “Crosscheck” certainly gives this impression, playful and whimsical. “Dansesong” is more of a tango, with its sense of adventure and freedom creating the imagery of a 1950’s tuxedo clad dancer breaking free of his mental shackles, leaving the women swooning at his newly found confidence as he takes the dance floor by storm. The lovely “Falling Petals” has a distinct 60’s feel to it, a-la Herbie Hancock or Bobby Hutcherson. Its deceptive simplicity is its underlying beauty. The title track, “Familiar Places”, is a treat for this Keith Jarrett devotee, reminiscent of one of the pianist’s finest harmonious offerings. The final two tracks, to this listener’s ears, both have more than one foot firmly rooted in the Brad Mehldau school of writing and performing. And for me, this is no bad thing at all. Quite possibly my favourite tracks on the album, “Dew Eye” and “Farmington” both employ a contagious energy, an undefined spirit, an almost indie-jazz vibe that is so full of flavour you can taste the sweetness on your tongue. Great performances from all the musicians involved.
“Familiar Places” is an accomplished debut from Dan Kaufman. The pianist’s playing is adventurous and dynamic, yet intelligent enough to surprise and delight in equal measure. On this evidence there should be much more to come from Kaufman, and I for one look forward with a degree of impatience to hearing more from him in the hopefully not too distant future. I want to hear more! A real developing talent and one I’ve thoroughly enjoyed listening to.