When Cooler Heads Prevail
Summit Records, 2001
REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/10/2002
As much as I am getting to love jazz, sometimes I have to be in just the right mood for it. In the case of pianist Bill Anschell, he must think I have forgotten about him, since I've been sitting on his latest disc When Cooler Heads Prevail for about four months.
The truth is, I've listened to parts of this disc on and off all through this time - and it wasn't until I started to develop a healthy appetite and respect for Bill Evans that I was able to fully grasp what Anschell has set out to accomplish on this, his third disc as a leader. Although I'm probably over-simplifying it, Anschell comes off in this trio setting as a composer trying to merge the worlds of Evans and Vince Guaraldi - that is, taking the free-form challenge of jazz and trying to bring it to the masses.
Does Anschell succeed? At times, yes - though there are moments when this disc is not the most easily approachable.
The times I found I absolutely loved what I was hearing was when Anschell and his bandmates - drummer/percussionist Woody Williams and bassists Neil Starkey and Rodney Jordan (who share the duties throughout this disc) - threw control to the wind and allowed themselves to just let the music take them where it wanted. On tracks such as "Dear Old Stockholm" and "If It Isn't One Thing...", these talented musicians produce some of the liveliest jazz I've heard in a while, with the controlled abandon of Williams's drum work and Jordan's thundering bass lines, all encased by Anschell's keyboard lines that sound like they could have just as easily been a saxophone solo. I don't know if I'm accurately putting into words how wonderful this kind of collaboration is; honestly, it's something the listener has to experience themselves to understand.
Yet there are times when a more controlled environment offers proof that this kind of musical abandon can be felt in any style. The opening track "Sweet And Lovely" has a more structured rhythm track, allowing Anschell to turn on the taps with his piano playing, as it were. It works just as well, and it's hard to believe that seven minutes passes so quickly. Likewise, the album's closer "Angels Watching Over Me" (which follows a powerful spotlight performance from Williams on "Woody's Turn," a drum solo that never gets gaudy) seems like it's the perfect choice to wrap things up.
Regrettably, not everything on When Cooler Heads Prevail is as approachable. "Undercurrent Event" tries valiantly to demonstrate that jazz does not need a proper drum kit to exude passion, but with Williams focusing on the percussion aspect of his craft, something is lost in the final translation of this song. Likewise, "Little Niles" takes far too long to get to the heart of the song - and the near-fadeout leading to Jordan's bass work throws the listener into a brief state of confusion. I understand that jazz is not supposed to cater to the lowest common denominator, and Anschell does work hard at making sure that even someone who isn't properly schooled in jazz can pick this disc up and find something to enjoy on it. But these rare moments sometimes feel like they could be enough to keep some listeners a bit frightened about entering a new musical genre.
Still, Anschell does seem to succeed, even when the final result isn't as "listener-friendly" as one might have hoped for. When Cooler Heads Prevail does often demonstrate the power of the jazz trio, and Anschell's ability to work with the ghosts of two jazz masters to come up with a sound that is all his own. Although those who are a little more familiar with jazz will derive the most pleasure from these 10 songs, even a newcomer to jazz will undoubtedly find something they'll like on this disc.