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Michael Ragonese - Stracci
(Rags Records, 2023)
On Stracci, pianist and composer Michael Ragonese takes a hard right turn from his horn-predominated debut, Day By Day (Self-Released, 2019) in the direction of pure piano trio performance. On Day By Day, Ragonese flexed his considerable arrangement muscles, particularly on the horn charts. The result was musical formal wear: a starched shirt and black tie, rendered with a precision carefully realized. On his sophomore effort, Ragonese loosens his black tie and relaxes into a robust recital of six original compositions and two standards demonstrating the freedom acknowledged in post-bop jazz.
Ragonese opens the disc with the Miles Davis standard, “Solar,” the same piece famously performed by the Bill Evans Trio on Sunday At The Village Vanguard (Riverside, 1961). Ragonese’s and Evans’ performances are an interesting juxtaposition, one that can frame each pianist’s approach to trio performance. Evans’ reading is loose and lengthy, beginning almost as an afterthought before Scott LaFaro puts fire to the fuse detonating the trio into forward momentum. Evans and LaFaro duet, often diverging within the harmony in rhythm and tempo. An Evans impressionistic exposition, LaFaro solo, and Motian traded eights comprised the song, loosely maintained on the drummer’s high hat.
Ragonese from the beginning ensures an orderly performance. Drummer Mark Ferber kicks the door open with a shimmering expanse of ride cymbal allowing bassist Luca Alemanno to establish a frantic pace before Ragonese enters at an angle remaining there for the opening chorus. The presentation of the head is defined and modulated ahead of Ragonese’s improvisation. The arrangement is as important here as on Day By Day concentrating the trio’s combined efforts. Ragonese’s coda closes the piece in the same order it was introduced, succinctly. These elements characterize Ragonese’s measured approach. On “Escape” the tro establishes an infectious descending harmonic architecture from which they easily enter and exit as they solo. Ferber’s snare and cymbal work begins simply, unwinding gradually into a post-bop percussion wall of sound behind the pianist.
“In Attesa” has a whiff of Robert Schumann's miniature simplicity given pastoral base notes. Alemanno solos first, then Ragonese, who opens the piece by allowing the trio free roaming reign. “Tides of Tomorrow Pts. 1 & 2” are considered a suite, Pt. 1 a gentle waltz guided by Ragonese’s light left hand and Alemanno’s precise accompaniment. The piece is played as if reciting poetry: faintly conversational with a fixed scaffolding. This gives way to the introspective “Pt. 2.” Paced like a gentle ballad, Ragonese and Alemanno conduct a tight duet leading into a pointed piano solo punctuated by Ferber’s careful cymbal work.
Ragonese throws in a straight reading of Sammy Fain’s and Irving Kahal’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” just to demonstrate his acute traditional chops. Here Rangonese and Evans intersect at the performance point of congruity. The result is well-behaved and traditional. The pianist closes with a reprise of “Copycat” originally released on Day By Day. Ragonese reduces the wordy full-band version to a taut but expansive trio reading grounded by Ferber's orchestral drumming. Ragonese is evolving into an innovative pianist, composer, arranger, and bandleader. And this remains just the beginning.