San Diego piano giant Joshua White is back at it, now fronting a brand-new trio featuring bassist Dean Hulett and drummer Ryan Shaw. On May 22, they dazzled a full house at Dizzy’s with an evening dedicated to the music of composer Billy Strayhorn.
Performing in the round, so to speak, White led off "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" with a brisk ostinato and a bright Latin edge, flirting with dissonance within moments and working up a head of ebullient steam over the heated propulsion of Shaw's drums. Hulett's first essay was dotted with rope-thick muscularity, and the whole band went for a fragmented ethos to take it out.
A perfectly chosen tempo characterized "Daydream," where the easy, languid pulse served as a kind of shock-absorber for some increasingly knotty chords. The ease with which this trio handled slow deceleration into manic double-time and back was something to behold.
"Johnny Come Lately" was all about the hypnotic vamp, which hung in the air like morning fog before swirling into a vortex powered by Hulett's pedal and the roiling drums of young Shaw, who went a little ballistic in the out-chorus.
White revealed his tender side on "Star-Crossed Lovers," focusing on lush and lyrical harmonies without neglecting a concurrent mischievous impulse -- as evidenced by the tension he created after spending several minutes hammering one note.
The pianist absorbed Strayhorn's "Isfahan" through a decidedly Monk-ish filter with advanced harmonies and quirky rhythms, yielding to Hulett for a feature of dark velocity before veering into a mostly solo reading of "Lush Life" that smashed into a thousand pieces and reassembled with a close examination of its jagged edges, magnified through brutal repetition.
Strayhorn's most recognizable tune, "Take the 'A' Train," received the ultimate Joshua White makeover: recasting the tune with a wicked funk beat, the pianist deliberately layered the melody in places where it didn't fit -- heightening the tension each step of the way -- and true to form, never really resolved it or fell into a familiar rut.
Bold and exploratory while somehow never losing its sense of joy and inclusion, Joshua White's evolution as an artist has elevated the cultural implications of living in San Diego exponentially. Catch him while you can.