Sam Yahel Opens for Steely Dan | Bleader

Sam Yahel Opens for Steely Dan


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Sam Yahel
  • Sam Yahel
If you’re checking out any of the four Steely Dan shows that begin tonight, I’d advise you to get there in time to catch the opening act, Sam Yahel. Over the past decade or so Yahel has emerged as one jazz’s most exciting and original organists, eschewing the greasy blues-based sound of Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Jack McDuff in favor of more pianistic, single-note lines a la Larry Young. He’s fronting a quartet this week, with Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Walt Weiskopf on saxophone, and Joe Strasser on drums (though Chicagoan George Fludas will be behind the kit Monday night).

Yahel was a pianist when he discovered the Hammond B-3 back in 1992, which isn't too surprising considering how he plays the organ, and he recently released his first piano record, Hometown (Posi-Tone)—which makes me hope it's not his last. Cut in 2007 with bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jochen Rückert, it’s a sublimely swinging affair characterized by melodic concision, a razor-sharp attack, and clever but unfussy harmonic invention.

Like many jazz musicians these days, Yahel looks to rock and pop for material—he tackles John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and Bebel Gilberto’s “River Song” without leaving a bad taste in my mouth—but my favorite moments include the lilting funk his trio brings to Ellington’s late classic “Blue Pepper” and a lightning-fast reharmonized version of Monk’s “Think of One.” His own compositions, while not quite so indelible, are still robust and graceful vehicles for the band’s three-way conversations. Yahel sticks with the basic pleasures of the piano trio—nuanced interaction, lean arrangements, individual parts moving at different speeds, a deep sense of the blues—but his nimble band easily shuffles foreground and background roles on the fly, transcending the format with its casual spontaneity.

Today’s playlist:

Cheb i Sabbah, Devotion (Six Degrees)
Replikas, Zerre (Peyote Müzik)
Lithops, Ye Viols! (Thrill Jockey)
Jeff “Tain” Watts, Watts (Dark Key)
Trio 3 + Geri Allen, At This Time (Intakt)

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