Pawns: Not for the Ordinary is the most recent CD from 24-year-old Philadelphia pianist/composer Micah Graves. All eight of the original tracks (except the track “When We Fall,” co-written with Horim Choi) are not your typical jazz standard types. As a matter of fact, you won’t be able to hum many of the melodies as Graves’ tunes are flurries of complex melodic riffs bolstered by a bevy of odd time signatures, not conducive for background dinner music.
Best labeled compositional music with jazz and classical elements abounding, Graves’ quintet of Zach Guise on bass, Yesseh Furaha-Ali on tenor sax, Zach Fischer on guitar, and Julian Miltenberger meet the challenge of Graves’ intricate tunes with an overall group dynamic reminiscent of another Philadelphia piano legend, McCoy Tyner. In particular, the ferocious drumming by Miltenberger and the extraordinary chops from Furaha-Ali’s tenor sax offer the same precision of the many up tempo compositional tunes by pianist Chick Corea as well.
The opening track, “Pawns,” immediately dives into a frenetic series of non-diatonic chord motions with repetitive melodic motifs moving in parallel patterns against up tempo odd time signature rhythms, reminiscent of John Coltrane’s modal compositional period. Graves’ lyrics are briefly featured in “Spirit” and “Lost in Time in Central Square,” with talented vocalists Danielle Dougherty and Shafiq Hicks harmonizing with echoes of the 1973 collaboration of Corea and vocalist Flora Purim.
“Inner Beast” and “Fed Up” follow in a more jazz mainstream style as Graves struts his improv chops on the latter with Furaha-Ali on tenor and Miltenberger on drums tearing it up on both tracks. “Odd Times” is just that, a bevy of odd time signature riffs played up tempo with some nice bass work from Guise in conjunction with Graves’ keyboards and Miltenberger’s drum barrage.
The dreamy track “When We Fall” brings back Dougherty’s mellifluous voice along with some nice guitar work from Fischer throughout. The album concludes with “The Hague,” a final footprint of the stellar soloing from Furaha-Ali’s horn, who shines throughout as the feature soloist. If you are a fan of the more “outside” jazz, a la Corea, Tyner, Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman perhaps, this album is for you.