Circles is the sophomore album by Benito Gonzalez, recently released by Furthermore Recordings. The Venezuelan-born jazz pianist made his debut as a leader relatively recently, with 2004’s Starting Point. Shortly thereafter he won the 2005 Great American Jazz Piano Competition. As a sideman Gonzalez has played with a host of jazz luminaries, most notably touring and recording with Kenny Garrett.
Circles features a kinetic rhythm section, supporting – and at times driving – Gonzalez’s piano. Jeff “Tain” Watts is behind the kit. Watts has a long history, both as a sideman on records by Wynton and Branford Marsalis (among many others) and as a bandleader. On bass is Christian McBride, bringing to the recording his vast experience and distinctive style. His virtuoso intro to the Elvin Jones tribute “Elvin’s Sight” is a nice tip of the hat to the late bass great Jimmy Garrison. He switches to electric bass for the brief but mesmerizing “Faces.”
Gonzalez composed eight of the nine pieces on Circles. The lone non-original is lengthy take of McCoy Tyner’s “Blues On the Corner.” A generous leader, Gonzalez allows ample room for his musicians to solo. The Tyner tune allows the group an opportunity to relax, rare for this album. The interplay on these tunes is generally quite intense, aided by a trio of saxophone players who put a distinct stamp on most of them.
Myron Walden brings excitement to more than half the album with his alto and soprano playing. Walden’s jagged soloing hits a peak on “The Movements.” Tenor sax is handled by either Ron Blake or Azar Lawrence, depending on the tune. Lawrence is in fine Coltranesque form on “Elvin’s Sight,” during which he stretches out as the only horn player. Blake has “Blues On the Corner” all to himself, digging in for some soul deep blues.
Even with these strong musical personalities vying for attention, Circles is a Benito Gonzalez album. For a reminder, look no further than “Elise.” Gonzalez is unaccompanied on the contemplative ballad, achieving a stark beauty with almost minimalist playing. It’s a moment of calm on an album otherwise characterized by tumultuous, churning energy.