JazzMonthly.com Artist Spotlight
As keyboardist with Russ Freeman & The Rippingtons since the late 90s – and a touring member since 2001 – Bill Heller has had the opportunity with Freeman’s compositions to create some of the most melodic and innovative sounds in contemporary jazz for years. Now, true to the title of his engaging, powerfully performed solo debut, he fulfills his longtime dream to “Find The Way” to make a contemporary jazz statement of his own—with dynamic and wildly eclectic results. Left to his own devices as an independent artist, composer and producer, he joyfully transcends the typical trappings of the smooth/urban jazz genre and lets his fans in on some wild musical wanderlust and a wide variety of his musical influences. Working alternately with and creatively pushing Jeff Kashiwa and Eric Marienthal, the two primary saxophone voices of his tenure with The Ripps, Heller fashions an honest and organic 12 track set that defies any simple categorization or mold.
With most contemporary jazz recordings these days, if you’ve heard a few songs, you’ve heard them all. With Bill Heller’s remarkable and transcendent Find The Way, you not only have to listen to all 12 songs, you will want to listen again and again to catch all the magical nuances. Truly one of the best contemporary jazz sets of 2014.
He starts out grooving easy and infectiously on a Vince “Guaraldi”-like tune, then gets funky, “Down & Loaded” with a spirited fusion of in the pocket urban jazz and wild piano improvisations. And how could we call it jazz without some struttin’ bop – or more precisely, “Bill’s Bop,” which balances Marienthal’s dancing saxes and flutes with a swinging Fender Rhodes solo section. After some high energy ivory dancing like a “Blackbird on A Fence” and the soulful, contemplative title track, Heller goes wild with a free for all jam named after Hurricane “Hanna” that engages in high energy musical chaos, a mix of time signatures and some hardcore whimsy by Marienthal and drummer Joel Rosenblatt.
The alternately moody, atmospheric and percussive “Alone” is the open door to the exotic, global music portion of the set, which the inventive keyboardist introduces by going wildly “Latinesque,” whose lively piano parts may remind listeners of The Ripps’ classic “Aruba!” and which features the sizzling horns of Carl Fischer (trumpet) and Luis Bonilla (trombone). “5 for 1” is a lighthearted acoustic jazz number with a light Latin percussive twist, while “Afrikaan” takes Heller for a high energy synth romp on that continent with fellow Ripps Dave Karasony (drums) and Rico Belled (bass). Heller wraps Find The Way with some groovin’ old school soul-jazz (“My Thing”) and a playful French flavored coda “Trottoir Du Musette” which finds Heller playing a brief but unforgettably hypnotic accordion melody.
– Jonathan Widran