New Review from Richard Kamins at Step Tempest

Pianist/composer J.J. Wright, while much younger than Denny Zeitlin (at least, 40 years), has varied interests, especially in music. He studied jazz improvisation at The New School for Jazz in New York City and is currently Director of Sacred Music at Sacred Heart  Parish at the University of Notre Dame. He has performed with the US Naval Academy Band and with vibraphonist David Samuels.  Wright also composed and performed with the quartet Turn Around Normaninitially based in the Baltimore, MD-area.

For his debut as a leader "Inward Looking Outward" (Ropeadope Records), Wright works and plays with Nate Wood (drums) and Ike Sturm (bass) on a 9-song program consisting of 6 originals and 1 tune each by Sufjan Stevens ("Little Person"), Jon Brion ("The Tranfigurations") and Phil Collins ("Take Me Home"). The first impression this listener had is just how upfront Wood's drums are in the mix.  One might make a connection to the sonic quality of The Bad Plus (Wood is as active a drummer as TBP's Dave King) but Wright has a different touch and attack than Ethan Iverson. Still, there are moments such as on the Brion tune where, in the piano-bass duet part of the song, the pianist's left hand work has the flavor of EI's.  Wright brings in one tune from his "..Norman" days, the funky "Consolations."  Sturm's thick tone and buoyant bass lines mesh well with Wood's active and dancing drums.  The pianist rides with and atop the beat, creating a hypnotic feel. 

The 5-section "JTC", separate compositions spread through the program, ranges from the hard-edged "II" that opens the CD to the classically flavored "I" that follows. The latter track takes its time to develop, going through different tempos and melodic ideas before Wright's solo hits its stride. "III" is a soulful gospel-tinged, ballad (not unlike a Randy Newman ballad); un-rushed, the piece takes its time but is a highly satisfying journey. There's more than a hint of Bud Powell and Chick Corea in the rhythm and melodic movement on "IV" (Wood flat-out "swings" while Sturm "walks" or offers strong counterpoint.  "V" also is a gospel-infused ballad , this time leaning more to sound and feel of Richard Manuel of The Band. 

Wood sets the pace on the Phil Collins song, a beat that neither wavers nor flags.  Wright presents the melody without flash or false sentiments.  The Trio does an admirable job of raising the intensity as they move to the final choruses and emotional climax, leaving the drummer to take the song "home."

J.J. Wright makes a powerful, musical, debut on "Inward Looking Outward" (also an apropos title for a recording) - his interactions with Nate Wood and Ike Sturm seem natural not forced and one can tell he felt comfortable to be himself (letting the rhythm section do what they do best.) For more information, go to