If you’ve been paying attention on the New Orleans jazz scene, you will already know the brilliant pianist Kris Tokarski, and the news of his debut CD, DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM, will be a pleasure but not a surprise.
If Kris is new to you, listen to these two selections here before moving on.
The first is the Hoagy Carmichael treasure (eternally associated with Billie) APRIL IN MY HEART; the second is Berlin’s ALL BY MYSELF. You can also hear him play CAROLINA SHOUT and QUASIMODO if you are even the slightest bit diligent. On the first three tracks, his cohorts are the splendid Evan Christopher or James Evans, and fine drummer Benji Bohannon.
But today our focus is properly on Kris. Yes, there are echoes of Teddy Wilson in his work, and I celebrate that, but he is on his own paths.
Kris has a strong but never overbearing reverence for the melody; his touch is lovely; he knows how to breathe through a phrase, when to leave notes out, how to create subtle carpets of harmony and oceanic swells of rhythm. Although he is not interested in making the beauties of the past “modern” (whatever that might mean) he has a wide harmonic range; he’s heard the music that was played after 1936 and is being played now. He is a delightfully clear yet ringing orchestral pianist, someone who doesn’t lag or rush, push or pound.
He’s there when you need him, and his delicate playing isn’t effete but full of restrained wit and emotional empathy. He knows how to swing and stride — with both hands — and his playing is fluid, supple — never stiff. His accompaniment is the very definition of sweet teamwork, and his solos are full of surprises: you can’t tell where he is about to land, but it’s graceful and satisfying when he does.
Did I mention that this young man is 25 years old? Allow that fact to settle in for a bit. What graceful mastery for someone so young — let me correct myself here — gracious mastery for anyone!
His debut disc is consistently delightful. Kris loves melodies and brings new light and shade to ones I thought had been done to a crisp by now. He understands that the role of a jazz pianist is also to float alongside great players. The first eight tracks are very lively homage to the piano-clarinet-drums trio so beloved of Goodman and Morton — with the clarinet offerings shared by Evan Christopher (LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, CAROLINA SHOUT, and APRIL IN MY HEART) and James Evans (DROP ME OFF IN HARLEM, IF DREAMS COME TRUE, PLEASE BE KIND, ALL BY MYSELF). Two tracks that follow are duets for Kris and tenor saxophonist James Partridge (PRISONER OF LOVE, SWEET LORRAINE), and the closing WHAT’S NEW? is a piano solo.
The trio and duo selections honor but do not imitate any of the great recordings; rather they say implicitly, “Here we are together. We know the tradition, but we trust ourselves to make our own lovely music. What shall we do together as a friendly community with this song to delight ourselves and our future hearers?”
Thus a gently swinging lyricism permeates every note on the CD. At times, I thought of PRES AND TEDDY; once or twice, of HEAVY LOVE (if you don’t know the references, they bear investigating); at other times I could find no objective correlative but simply basked in the sounds these people were so generously offering.
And where some young musicians feel the need to show off their skills — “Look how fast I can play this! Look how many new chord changes I can put into this song! Look how I can transform this standard into a ________!” Kris is serene and secure in his trust in melodic improvisation over swinging backgrounds.
He is also — and I admire this greatly — a deep romantic. The disc is full of affection for the music and what it can give to us. It’s not about egotistic display; it’s about affection. Why else would someone begin a CD with the rhapsodic and optimistic and eternally hopeful LOVE WILL FIND A WAY? And the closing WHAT’S NEW? is — while rueful — not bleak in its melancholy. I suspect that Kris has in his heart a deep knowledge of “love’s sweet amen.” It comes through in his music.
I encourage you to follow this young man, to buy his CD, to cheer him on. To buy the disc, follow the trail of breadcrumbs here. Or if you are within range of the Louisiana Music Factory, lucky you! — click here. The nicest thing to do, of course, would be to find Kris at a gig — his itinerary is posted on his site — and say, “Mr. Tokarski, could I buy a box of your CDs? I heard about you and about it on JAZZ LIVES.” And then everyone would be beaming.
To know that Kris Tokarski exists, that he creates such lovely music, is very heartening news.
May your happiness increase!