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Review: Aaron Diehl Trio at Indy Jazz Fest

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Aaron Diehl at The Jazz Kitchen, Sept. 12.
  • Lora Olive
  • Aaron Diehl at The Jazz Kitchen, Sept. 12.
Above all else, you could call pianist Aaron Diehl, who opened Indy Jazz Fest with his trio last night at the Jazz Kitchen, a good steward. Musically-speaking, for sure, but one figures that his sense of purpose and respect is informed by his religious beliefs as well.

Diehl, after all, is not just an up-and-coming jazz musician; he also holds down a position as pianist for the Holy Family Church in Harlem. And, as he mentioned from the stage between songs, he first started his musical education in church, while a tyke growing up in Columbus, Ohio. Diehl was compelled to say as much because his old minister, now living in Indy, was in the audience.

The minister talked Diehl into his first church performances, asking him to play a prelude at age 8 or 9 after he learned that Diehl played piano. Diehl joked that he ended up playing the same prelude before every service; his grandma asked him after a while, "Aren't you going to learn a new hymn?"

He played an old hymn for the minister — "Amazing Grace" — but he did so with a fervor very much in the present, giving the tune a organ-like feel, ending with rumbling tremolos on the low end and runs up down the keys with his right. It can be a tired tune, but he made it sound fresh and powerful in a solo piano setting.

At the same time, Diehl displays a similar respect for the jazz canon, for his elders from across the century. Not that his work sounds derivative; to the contrary, the originals he played had an in-process quality, as if he's still figuring out his voice as a composer, if not as necessarily as a performer (he's already plenty confident in that respect).

But Diehl does justice across periods and styles: a reading of "Woody 'n' You" demonstrated impressive (and completely germane) virtuosity, Diehl tinkling up and down with near-record speed; his band's take on "'Round Midnight" managed to bring life to another tune that, like "Amazing Grace," is certainly over-played, with bassist David Wong playing the head mournfully and succinctly. And there were other respectful but clever inventions — his version of "Pick Yourself Up," a bright, light theme-and-variations movement, cleared the ground for beefier closing numbers "Giant Steps" and "Moonlight in Vermont," which saw Diehl searching for new expression while demonstrating his erudition (a quote from An American in Paris fitting right into his thoughts).

The American Pianists Association was looking for a creative, outgoing steward for the tradition when they awarded Diehl the Cole Porter Fellowship earlier this year; it would appear that their choice paid off. As part of the fellowship prize package, Diehl is currently recording material for Detroit jazz label Mack Avenue (hence some of the untitled numbers that worked their way into the set). And he'll certainly be back in town before long, though maybe not too often in the future: One gets the sense that Diehl, an engaging, very likable guy, could break through on the same terms as, say, Wynton Marsalis.

Guitarist Jeff McLaughlin, an IU-Bloomington student who won a contest to record for Owl Studios last year, was the opener, playing in a four-piece setting. McLaughlin's record for Owl, Blocks, was released this summer; and by the sound of it Monday night, both Owl and the APA made wise choices in picking their winners.

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