The fine young blind jazz pianist Justin Kauflin, featured as friend and protégé of jazz master Clark Terry in the touching 2014 documentary on his life, Keep on Keepin’ On, has released a new album titled Dedication. Terry, noted for his career-long willingness to work with young musicians knew talent when he heard it, and he understood what was needed to develop that talent. A great musician couldn’t just copy what he heard others doing; great musicians have a voice of their own.
Musicians interviewed in the documentary are clear about Terry’s own voice: when you hear Terry play the trumpet, you don’t have to see him. You hear the music and you know who is playing. It is that kind of signature voice, that kind of signature sound that separates the Monks and the Coltranes, the Brubecks and the Davises from the crowd of admittedly otherwise very good musicians.
If in the documentary Kauflin is portrayed as something of a work in progress, with Dedication he clearly demonstrates that work is close to completion. If, indeed, that sort of work can ever be completed.
The new album is a collection of a dozen original compositions including three trio tunes with Billy Williams on drums and Christopher Smith on bass, eight quartet pieces adding Matt Stevens on guitar, and one piano solo. As described on his web page: “The CD consists of 12 original compositions, nine of which are dedications to teachers, friends and family, with a three-part suite reflecting his faith sandwiched in between.”
Kauflin’s sensitive playing gives his music a transcendent calm that is transformative at its best. He plays, much like Terry did, less to show off technical skills than to lay claim to melodic beauty. It’s not that he lacks technical skills—he can show off when he wants to, witness some of the dynamic runs over the keys in the documentary. It’s that he puts those technical skills to work in the service of the music.
Compositions like “The Professor” (dedicated to pianist Mulgrew Miller) and “B Dub” (for Billy Williams) demonstrate the post-bop rhythms of his work, while in the haunting ballad “For Clark” the emotional truthfulness of the music dominates. A version of this from Keep on Keepin’ On is available on YouTube. The ultimate dedications come last on the album, the solo piece “Mother’s Song” and the gospel influenced “Thank You Lord.” This last adds Etan Haziza on nylon guitar.
If Dedication does nothing else, it is proof positive that Clark Terry knows potential talent when he hears it and provides a fund of fine music while it does it.
Keep On Keepin’ On Image: Absolute Clay Productions/RADiUS-TWC[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00OYT32RG]