"The Disciple," 10th CD by Pianist Peter Zak for the SteepleChase Label, to Be Released Oct. 21

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There are few jazz pianists performing today who excel in the art of the straight-ahead piano-bass-drums trio as brilliantly as does Peter Zak. The empathy that he, bassist Peter Washington, and drummer Willie Jones III achieve on all ten tracks of "The Disciple" -- the Los Angeles-born, New York-based pianist's tenth album in ten years for SteepleChase Productions and eighth such trio recording for the esteemed Danish label -- is nothing short of breathtaking.

"The Disciple," the new SteepleChase trio recording by pianist Peter Zak.

The fact that the piano is the lead instrument in terms of playing the melody [in the trio format] appeals to me. And the hookup between the ride cymbal and the bass ... The reason I play jazz is basically for that feel.

For his tenth CD in as many years, all for the Danish SteepleChase label, pianist Peter Zak continues his brilliant series of jazz trio explorations, this time in the company of bassist Peter Washington and drummer Willie Jones III. The new disc, "The Disciple," will be released October 21.

“The fact that the piano is the lead instrument in terms of playing the melody appeals to me,” Zak says of the trio format. “There’s that, and the hookup between the ride cymbal and the bass doesn’t get any better than that. The reason I play jazz is basically for that feel.”

Washington, who’s on board for his fourth consecutive Zak session, “is one of the best musicians I’ve ever played with,” says the pianist. “He really knows how to break up the time and to really find the groove when it needs to be found. He hears everything that’s happening immediately.”

Zak’s association with Jones dates to 1998 when both were sidemen on trumpeter Ryan Kisor’s The Usual Suspects CD. “He’s got a lot of energy but he’s not bombastic,” Zak says of the much-in-demand drummer. “I just like his sensibility about swinging.”

Zak is a stylistic disciple of some of the greatest jazz pianists of the bop and post-bop eras. He salutes six of them on "The Disciple" with personalized interpretations of compositions by Chick Corea (“The Loop”), Elmo Hope (“Barfly”), Horace Silver (“Nutville”), Herbie Hancock (“Requiem”), Hampton Hawes (“Jackie”), and Thelonious Monk (“Criss Cross”), along with three originals and one by the Russian classical composer and pianist Alexander Scriabin.

He hadn’t initially planned a CD of tunes made up entirely of tunes by piano players. It just turned out that way, as did the fact the set opens and closes with waltzes: Corea’s “The Loop” and his own “The Disciple.” His decisions must have been subconscious, as he has long shown himself to be master of programming music who often selects great yet little-known songs for his recordings and live performances. “I want to do things that are off the beaten track, something that hasn’t been done a lot,” he explains.

Peter Zak, 49, was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Columbus and Kent, Ohio, then moved with his family at age 16 to Oakland. At the University of California, Berkeley, where he majored in history, he studied with Susan Muscarella (founder/director of Berkeley’s Jazzschool, now the California Jazz Conservatory).

Zak played on an extracurricular basis in combo and big band settings, with the UC Jazz Ensembles. He also freelanced in bands with noted bassist Herbie Lewis, who had recorded with one of Zak’s major influences, McCoy Tyner, as well as Jackie McLean and local hero Bobby Hutcherson. Following his graduation from UC Berkeley, Zak played clubs, concerts, and festivals with such notables as saxophonists Frank Morgan and John Handy.

Since moving to New York in 1989, Zak has enjoyed ongoing recording and performing associations with saxophonists Walt Weiskopf, Jim Snidero, and Stephen Riley; trumpeter Ryan Kisor; and guitarist Tom Guarna. Zak has accompanied such name artists as George Coleman, Billy Hart, Jon Hendricks, Etta Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Scott Hamilton, and Junior Cook. He’s been on the faculty in the Jazz and Contemporary Music College of the New School since 1995 and currently teaches an ensemble class there.

Zak has recorded steadily as a leader since making his debut, in 2005, with "The Peter Zak Trio," a trio date with Paul Gill and Al Foster. That same year, he was the recipient of a $10,000 commission from the Doris Duke Foundation to compose and perform a new work for his trio.

In his notes to "The Disciple," Zak describes the composition process as something “by turns challenging, intriguing, frustrating, and finally rewarding” and discusses the value of standard jazz repertoire “as springboards to improvisation and collective interaction. . . . You still need that foundational element that’s built on a basis of collective knowledge among the performers, and oftentimes the audience. Only then do we stand a chance for that deep groove, and for imagination to truly take flight.”

Peter Zak and his trio (Paul Gill, bass, and Joe Farnsworth, drums) plus guest soloist Peter Bernstein will be performing a CD release show for "The Disciple" at Smoke, 2751 Broadway, New York City, on Wednesday 10/22. Sets are at 7:00, 9:00, and 10:30 pm.

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Terri Hinte