Old Folks - 5:12
Just in Time - 4:02
Beautiful Friendship - 4:25
All the Way - 6:06
Someday My Prince Will Come - 5:48
You and the Night and the Music - 5:31
Ana Maria - 6:55
Skylark - 4:33
Thought About You - 6:02
Last Dance I - 1:18
Last Dance II - 6:38
Noah Haidu - piano
Buster Williams - bass
Lewis Nash - drums
Peter Washington - bass
Steve Wilson - drums
Rising star pianist/composer Noah Haidu’s resplendently expressive Standards (June 23, 2023, Sunnyside Records) celebrates the 40th anniversary of the release that launched Keith Jarrett’s great Standards Trio and arrives on the heels of Haidu’s two recent acclaimed Sunnyside albums, most notably 2021’s SLOWLY: Song for Keith Jarrett. Featuring Haidu with bassists Buster Williams and Peter Washington, drummer Lewis Nash and guest saxophonist Steve Wilson, Standards is, in part, the soulmate to SLOWLY, which DownBeat called “a stunning and heartfelt tribute.” After Haidu, Buster Williams and Billy Hart recorded its last two songs – “But Beautiful” and “Georgia on My Mind” – Williams said, “Those two standards were beautiful, got any more?”
The next step in the evolution of Standards happened not in the studio but on the road. After recording SLOWLY, Haidu felt drawn to the format used by Jarrett, DeJohnette, and Peacock for their Standards Trio. When Nash, a drummer who was already ubiquitous when Haidu was first falling in love with jazz in his teens, joined Haidu and Williams during their 2021 tour, the connection was electric. “When Buster, Lewis and I played for the first time we played a lot of standards and I could feel that there was something special happening that I wanted to document,” says Haidu. “It felt as though every song had emotional depth, every note we played mattered. The 40th anniversary of the most celebrated ensemble to play standards in my lifetime seemed like the perfect moment to make my own statement on this music.”
With Doctone, 2020’s tribute to the late, great Kenny Kirkland, and the subsequent SLOWLY, Haidu’s renown has grown rapidly: Larry Blumenfeld penned an in-depth feature about Haidu’s projects in the Wall Street Journal, and NPR cast its spotlight on the ascendant pianist with features on “Here and Now” and “All Songs Considered.” Three million streams in the last 18 months are testament to Haidu’s rapidly increasing fan base.
One of the benefits of Haidu’s growing international acclaim is his ever-expanding sense of artistic freedom which allowed him to take certain risks on Standards. “There’s something so vulnerable about playing in this context, where you’re completely exposed,” he says. “Of course, I love composing because you can create an entire world, your own language of sound. But with these old standards all you’ve got is your own musicality and the connection you have with the music and the players. That requires a willingness to let go and see where the song takes you, something that can’t be taught or practiced.”
Many of the tracks on Standards have been recorded by Jarrett’s trio with Peacock and DeJohnette. All are ‘standards’ except “Last Dance I” and “Last Dance II,” which Haidu named after a Jarrett recording and composed in tribute to the Standards Trio and their final concert at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, which he attended. Haidu remembers that at one point Jarrett joked with the audience: “Don’t try this at home.” Thinking back to that night in 2014 Haidu reflects, “I believe I subconsciously took that as a challenge. Not to follow in their footsteps, but to build on my own voice with the trio and these songs.”
For Haidu, that evolving endeavor has led to his own impassioned approach to the piano trio. “The theme of lost love is the emotional center of so many of these songs such as ‘Skylark,’ ‘All the Way’ and ‘I Thought About You.’ That’s something I’ve been dealing with in music and life,” says Haidu. “There’ve been a few painful breakups in recent years and I lost my father with whom I was very close. That feeling of lost love, familiar to so many people, comes into play on so many standards, especially on ballads. As I started incorporating that music into my repertoire fans would come up to me after the show and say, ‘Those ballads…wow!’”
Standards begins with “Old Folks” and “Just in Time,” both part of Jarrett/Peacock/ DeJohnnette’s oeuvre. Haidu’s trademarks of soulful touch and melodic imagination are on full display buoyed by Williams’ supple bass lines and Nash’s crisp, fluid drumming. A deeply swinging version of “A Beautiful Friendship” follows. On a moving slow motion version of “All the Way” that depends as much on group interaction as the original melody, the trio seems to breathe as one.
“Someday My Prince Will Come” features Peter Washington in the bass chair. The trio’s forward momentum and clarity of tone drive this tune forward, along with Haidu and Washington’s sublime improvisations. On “You and the Night and the Music,” saxophonist Steve Wilson joins the trio with a freewheeling, rich-toned alto. Haidu’s solo builds on the energy of Wilson’s until Nash’s unaccompanied drums take the song, which was played by Jarrett at his Deerhead Inn concert, to its climax. The quartet’s hauntingly beautiful rendition of “Ana Maria,” composed by the legendary saxophonist Wayne Shorter, reflects the theme of loss. The piece was written for Shorter’s wife, who later passed away tragically with their niece Dalila on TWA flight 800. “With the loss of Ana Maria, Dalila and of Wayne himself, this song now embodies the narrative of loss in so many ways,” says Haidu.
On “Skylark,” Haidu’s exquisite right-hand melodies are accompanied by the precise yet delicate rhythm of his left hand. “I Thought About You” finds Haidu at his most propulsive and harmonically imaginative best, with the trio reveling in the joy of playing together. Haidu’s ”Last Dance I” and “Last Dance II” bring back the quartet for a moody and expressive 3/4 piece featuring soaring solos by Wilson and Haidu. The album ends with cascades of rhythm from Nash over a repeated ensemble refrain.
Like Jarrett, Haidu started playing classical piano at a young age. Moving frequently as a result of his parents’ divorce, music became the one constant in his life. He became fascinated with blues, R&B and eventually jazz. “I’ve worked hard on my playing since I was six years old,” he says. “Besides Jarrett and Kenny Kirkland I’m inspired by bop, modal players, classical and gospel music.”
Haidu has truly lived in music for his whole adult life, having dropped out of the jazz program at Rutgers after two years to move to New York City and begin performing. He initially worked with Walter Perkins, Duane Eubanks, Essiet Essiet, and more recently Billy Hart, Steve Wilson, Carl Allen, Willie Jones III, Jon Irabagon, and Gary Thomas. Of his exemplary trio Haidu says simply, “We are seeking the deepest level of expression. It’s not about technique, tricks or trends. It’s all heart.”