Friday, April 29, 2011

Eddie Mendenhall: Cosine Meets Tangent

Miles High Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Cosine Meets Tangent

Eddie Mendenhall began to play the piano when he was 4, and was only 8 when he started performing the classics. But he didn’t get hooked on jazz until he attended the Monterey Jazz Festival, at age 13: He earned a place in the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All Star Band, where he was able to accompany Dizzy Gillespie on the Main Stage during the 1990 Festival.

Mendenhall subsequently received a bachelor of arts degree in jazz composition from Boston’s Berklee College of Music, then spent the next seven years in Japan, where he became one of the busiest pianists in Tokyo.

Mendenhall now resides in the States, is an instructor at Monterey Peninsula College and has formed his own quartet; that unit — Mark Sherman on vibes, John Schifflett on bass, and Akira Tana on drums — is featured in this, his first recording. This instrumental format, a favorite of mine, echoes the famous Modern Jazz Quartet: pianist John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, drummer Connie Kay and vibraphone master Milt Jackson.

Mendenhall’s combo is the MJQ’s musical equal.

Eight of these 10 tracks demonstrate Mendenhall’s prowess as a composer, as well as an instrumentalist. One of the tunes (“The Great Triplet”) is by Sherman, and the last is a cover of Rogers and Hart’s beautiful standard, “So Easy To Remember.”

I’ve always thought that a quartet utilizing both piano and vibes is more musical and “interesting” than one with just a single instrumentalist and a rhythm section. The arrangements are more complex, because the two “lead” instruments are playing with — and against — each other, granting the listener different interpretations of the melodic lines.

In that respect, a comparison of Mendenhall’s group and the MJQ is revealing. Mendenhall and Lewis play the piano quite differently; the former is “busier” and uses both hands extensively, while the latter is predominately right-handed and plays more “loosely.” Putting it another way, Lewis was more of a swinger.

The same can be said of the vibes artists: Sherman has a “cleaner” technique, but isn’t as loose as Jackson. Their styles are different, but excellent in their individuality.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this quartet becomes as popular as the MJQ, and that says a lot about Mendenhall’s future.

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