There is some truly fine listening on the debut album from RJ and The Assignment, Deceiving Eyes. The RJ of the title is a talented pianist now based in Vegas who has been playing jazz, gospel, neo-soul and more around the country for over 15 years. The Assignment is his supporting cast, an array of musicians who play in different combinations on each of the album’s 11 tracks. The music itself is a mixture of old favorites and original compositions developed from RJ’s eclectic musical interests, but with the strongest emphasis always on jazz. This is music in the tradition of the great jazz pianists, and RJ has the chops to carry it off with panache.
It is only fitting then that the album opens with a Herbie Hancock composition, “Dolphin Dance.” It is clear from the opening notes where this pianist is going and how he is going to get there. Like most of the tracks on the disc, this features a trio, RJ with a drummer and bassist. Drummers and bassists change on different tracks, in this case it’s Paul Ringenbach on drums and Scott Teeple on acoustic bass. The same combo works together on the old standard “Someday My Prince Will Come” which ends with a plaintive allusion to “When You Wish Upon a Star” and the Mash theme “Suicide is Painless.” This is jazz in the modern tradition.
Saxophonist Julian Tanaka joins the trio on the RJ original “I Took a Chance on Loving You,” a melodic swinger. Tanaka plays again on the Cedar Walton classic “Bolivia,” this time with RJ along with Kenneth Logan on drums, Mariko Kitada on acoustic bass, and Jason Bolden on electric bass. “Bolivia” is a great tune; it almost guarantees a highlight in the hands of the right musicians and RJ and his ensemble deliver the goods.
At times RJ plays with a lush lyricism, as on the inspirational gospel “Total Praise,” at other times with a more subtle touch, as at the start of his own “New Beginnings,” but he always plays with expressive style. RJ originals “Winter in Chicago,” “Where R U,” and the title song, “Deceiving Eyes” round out the album, along with Pharrell Williams’ hip-hop hit “Frontin’.” The intense drummer on this last track is Terry Wesley II. Jason Bolden plays bass. RJ plays both piano and keys. It is a fine example of the improvisatory possibilities in what may for some be unexpected sources as well as the range of RJ’s musical interests.
Deceiving Eyes marks the debut of a fine talent. It deserves to be heard.