December 4, 2017
By Dee Dee McNeil
Sometimes, when you place a CD into your CD player, with no compunction and no preconceived ideas about what it will sound like, you are blown away by the uniqueness of genius. That’s what happened today when I put on Billy Lester’s trio project recorded in Italy a year ago. Marcello Testa and Nicola Stranieri are iconic European jazz players and these two lauded musicians are featured along with Billy Lester.
The first thing that strikes me about this recording is the unique call and response that Billy Lester ‘s hands create. First, the right hand tinkles a melody and it’s quickly answered by Lester’s left hand.
Sometimes it’s almost an echo technique with creative musical repetition between the ten phalanges. His original composition, “An Evening with Friends” is the perfect vehicle for this technique to fester and grow. The way Lester plays, it’s as though he has four hands and 20 sets of busy fingers. I don’t mean busy as in speed. I mean a contemplative, timely, technical exploration of the 88-keys with precision and thoughtfulness. Lester has composed all six of the compositions you will enjoy on this project and each one is well-written and well-played. He grew up listening to master musicians like Bud Powell and Art Tatum; Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge. You can also hear the influence of Thelonius Monk in his playing and his love of Lester Young comes through in his creative solos and improvisational freshness. He knows how to take a melody and redevelop it.
CD Review: https://musicalmemoirs.wordpress.com/
SERGIO ARMAROLI Set with BILLY LESTER “To play Standard(s) Amnesia”
DODICILUNE RECORDS. CD Ed384, 2017
by Alessandro Nobis
"Some jazz artists—few, to tell the truth—with approaches that we’ll call “lightly radical,” can sustain the futility of playing standards in a way that confronts the originals, which would be a lost cause; so, why insist on playing “My Favorite Things” if John Coltrane has already performed it? Fortunately the overwhelming majority of musicians who are devoted to Afro-American music think differently, and among those are the vibraphonist Sergio Armaroli who with the idea “To play Standard(s) Amnesia” propose a selection of ten tracks that are inspired declarations to the sonorities that define the small ensembles typical of Sal Mosca and Lennie Tristano in conjunction with the Modern Jazz Quartet without—pay attention—paying attention to the scores of these musicians. And, seeing that the guest pianist on this disc is Billy Lester, one of the musicians considered the closest to Tristano’s jazz, the music chosen by Armaroli appears even more original giving it not only a different style but perhaps an “austerity” in the tracks like “Autumn Leaves,” “All the Things You are” or “Body and Soul,” but also offers Billy Lester the opportunity to record in a studio given his ten years of dedicating himself to teaching (a path also followed by another pianist, Barry Harris) in Yonkers, his birth city in the state of New York. Maybe generations of young pianists have been fortunate to have a teacher so important, but the public of jazzophiles has in the meantime lost the opportunity of following such a talented and refined pianist in his stylistic evolution; therefore, compliments to Arcaroli and do Dodicilune for having brought into the light for us mortals Billy Lester who, here with saxophonist Claudio Guida, the drummer Nicola Strainieri and the bassist Marcello Testa, and, of course, with Sergio Armaroli, a gift of gold of jazz in the grand tradition, enjoyable whether listened to on a superficial level or on a profound one; the rhythmic sound in perfect harmony with Lester, the rest who create ideas and solos especially of the vibraphone and the saxophone, and the best ideas are found in the duets between the piano and the vibraphone (the hundred seconds of intro to “Autumn Leaves,”
for example. A quintet that savors life, who knows . . ."
Billy Lester Trio’s “Italy 2016” showcases well-crafted jazz
Dodie Miller-Gould October 24, 2017
Pianist Billy Lester met his trio mates, Marcello Testa and Nicola Stranieri in Italy during a tour in 2014. The three played together and toured before recording the CD in 2016. “Italy 2016” is a brief album of six songs that demonstrates the craftsmanship that the three musicians bring to jazz.
About Billy Lester
Billy Lester is a music educator with a firm grounding in jazz standards and the Great American songbook. During his formative years in Yonkers, New York, Lester began to master the piano at an age when most children are learning to count. Lester’s early musical influences were Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, Bud Powell and Louis Armstrong. He ended up formalizing his education at Manhattan School of Music. With the pianist’s solid musical background, it would seem that Lester would be prolific–producing album after album in rapid succession. Instead, in the past two decades, Lester has only released six albums. Despite this, Lester has cultivated an ardent group of followers who patiently await his next release. Lester is known for playing that evokes jazz greats, while maintaining a signature style. His work has earned Lester awards and accolades from publications such as Jazz Times, and other American and European magazines. Lester has also garnered a positive mention on NPR’s annual jazz critics poll. While bassist Marcello Testa and drummer Nicola Stranieri might be less well-known than Lester in the US, their reputations in Europe are better developed. The bassist and drummer are considered two of the best rhythm players in Europe. On “Italy 2016” they combine with Lester to form the Billy Lester Trio.
Soundscape of “Italy 2016”
The first track on “Italy 2016” is the buoyant and engaging “An Evening With Friends.” There is a great deal of energy given off during the song, and it seems too much for a trio to accomplish. To his credit, Lester makes it sound as if a few different people are playing the piano. There are two piano motifs. One is jaunty and spirited, and the other a bit slower. They wrap around and weave in between the bass and drum. The bass is showcased, and suddenly the song is quiet except for brushed drums and the occasional piano chord for texture. The song seems to illustrate the waxing and waning of activity during an evening spent socializing. Over halfway through, the drums get louder and begin to shine. They are no longer brushed, but sound as though they are played traditionally. The effective clatter created by drums adds to the dynamics provided by the rest of the instrumentation.
“Pop Pop Train”
Even faster than “An Evening With Friends.” “Pop Pop Train” starts out with a hyper speed piano riff racing around the bass and drums. However, this time, the rhythm section does not play slower. The bass runs furiously through its notes, and the drums are so meshed into the overall sound that it is difficult to find them with the occasional crash of cymbal. As in other Lester songs, the drums shine when they are showcased. The level of virtuosity displayed during the fast sections is mind-blowing. Despite the velocity, the rhythm never falls apart. The song swings and has fun, and invites listeners along for the ride.
“Italy 2016” will be available Nov. 3, 2017.
Review posted on Rotcod Zzaj
December 21, 2013 by Rotcod Zzaj
Billy Lester "UNABRIDGED"
It's been a long time since I reviewed Billy's fantastic jazz solo piano work (the last review was in issue # 134). On this May 2015 release, he again proves himself as a master of the keyboards in a BIG way! If you're not sure about that go LISTEN to Jamba Swing. riffs like youíve never heard before, and if youíre a totally dedicated fan of piano adventure, you won't be able to stop listening to his timeless playing.
If you look up the definition for "unabridged", you'll realize that this is a perfect title for his album - complete, entire, uncut - this is raw playing purely for the pleasure it can bring (for both the player and the listener). One of the oddest blues I've ever heard is Billy's Blues for Charlie Christian - odd because it's not at all what you would expect a blues to be - yet it clearly IS blues, with lots more notes than youíre used to hearing. "Spontaneous" is the best word to describe what he's doing, I believe; and that's especially true on my personal favorite of the eight tunes offered up, the 6:06 "SpreeIng". I give Mr. Lester a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with an "EQ" (energy quotient) rating of 4.98 for this adventurous album. You can learn more about this fascinating player by reading Billy's bio
Review posted on Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
December 21, 2013 by Mark S. Tucker
Solo piano albums are things to be approached with fear, caution, fevered brow, and wild hope. The piano, after all, is one of the most staccato and inflexible of all instruments available. Spawned from the even more hard-edged harpsichord, it presents an odd midground between the percussive and the chordophonic, able to transcend itself only through a very discerning mind and intimately knowledgeable hands. We've had more than our share of Steve Halperns, George Winstons, Liz Stories, and etc. Best of luck with their enterprises, and if they do well, excellent, more power to 'em, but my dollars won't be among the inflow. I want more challenging material, more daredevil and/or refined thinking, something I can sink not just my fangs into but molars as well, taste buds too, then roll up my sleeves and wrestle with the presentation. Billy Lester's Storytime is just such a beast and, in that, is not going to be the source of fascination for everybody that it is for me and will be for connoisseurs.
Lester favors narrative, musical novel-making, story-telling (hence the CD title), and puts a rather impressive degree of muscle into doing so. Though the initial Prologue commences true to its namesake, gently, expositionally, matters get rapidly meaty and unhedging. Not one to prance around the subject matter, Lester attacks his instrument with gusto and confidence. His influences are easily discerned because he tributizes two of them explicitly in Remembering Bud Powell and Sal Mosca, but I'm telling you here and now that you'll also detect Keith Jarrett and even Sun Ra, the former in improv and profundity, the latter in echoes of the mutated bayou traditionalism Ra exhibited when he wasn't noiseuring in that spectacularly individual vocabulary of his. There's also some of Joplin in a pissed-off mood and then a slice of boogie woogie that had way too many amphetamines mixed with barbiturates, indecisive as to whether it wants to get up and shake it or just lay there and dream.
However, in Lullaby, which obviously had a swaddling beatnik baby in mind, Lester employs an interestingly staccato set of ascending repeating chords that wouldn't be strangers to unusual composers like Robert Fripp or Christian Vander. In that, I would also credit a masterful Paul Bley presence—not to mention ex-wife Carla—in this guy's out-of-the-box manners. Lightning Man gets even more out of hand, and the listener will either be fascinated or turn to Barry Manilow for protection. This is dangerous stuff, y'all. In terms of imagery, though, there's definitely a literate straddling of boundaries between Herman Melville, Raymond Chandler, and Kurt Vonnegut, even some Norman Mailer. Challenging music but there's not a wasted second in any of it. You'll come to the far end of the 52 minutes feeling like you just went ten rounds with the champ, bruised and panting…but wondering when you can get a rematch.
Review in Top 21
October 31, 2013 by John Shelton Ivany
"story time" is the latest album by jazzmaster, pianist billy lester. it's like he's playing with his heart into the mic with pure honesty. lester is authentic as a person, as a musician, with all the doubt, mystery and wonder at being alive.
Review in Jazz Times
September 20, 2013 by Travis Rogers
A smoking addition to the great legacy of solo piano
The May, 2013 release of Billy Lester’s “Storytime” was a welcome addition to the great corpus of solo Jazz piano. It is masterful and meticulous, skilled and sonorous, paced and powerful.
The album’s progression is set up as a bedtime narrative, a stream of consciousness narrative. Transitions are intentionally absent and the texture often becomes more dream-like than story-like. The vocabulary and tone, scenery and imagery are thoughtfully established in the opening track entitled “Prologue.”
Immediately following is “Lullaby” which is not as serene as it is hypnotic. The chord progressions are given a delicate touch that manages to soothe despite the packed chords.
“Lightning Man” and “Ode to Bud Powell” are adventurous forays into what Howard Mandel calls “connoisseur Jazz.” Lester takes us on a ride with raw and (in “Ode to Bud Powell”) extravagant approaches. The rapid-fire attack is brilliant.
He can turn in a Jazz nocturne like “Under the Stars” or go for a bit of light-hearted romp in “Dark Streets” or offer the listener something more melodic like “Color Red.” He creates a film noir feel with “Bonanza” in which one expects to see the conjuring of Bogart and Bacall (or Peter Lorre). The left-hand pacing is delightfully dark.
Lester displays another tribute piece in “Sal Mosca,” another ode but this time to his long-time mentor. It is Lester’s recollection of his teacher without being maudlin but instead celebrates Mosca’s approach.
“Encore” is the final payoff of this remarkable album. It is full of vibrancy and touching torment as is the whole album—a late-night reverie of sound.
Review on Rotcodzzaj
July 24, 2013 by Rotcod Zzaj
Billy Lester – STORYTIME: This isn’t exactly “upbeat”, or “super-hip” jazz – but it IS jazz, to be sure – with a story being told. As you listen to the opening of “Prologue“, you may think that it’s just “kerplunk-ity” notes, but as it matures, the tale comes to the fore – you just fill in the blanks (best with headphones on & eyes closed). The too-cool “Lightning Man” starts right off with thunder striking in your ears, & doesn’t let up until a little more than four minutes later. If solo piano is your cup of tea as a listener, you won’t get any better than this 11-tune wonder! My personal favorite was “Bonanza“, probably because of the thick mother-lode of chords on the tune. For listeners totally entranced by solo keyboards, this gets a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with an “EQ” (energy quotient) rating of 4.97. Get more information about Billy & his music at Billy’s website.
"Dedicated to the contemporary jazz expression, he leaves the genre limitations behind in his performances, creating his own, extravagant expression, based on free improvisation, the expression which shall not win him a large public for sure."
Review in Gapplegate Music Review
July 15, 2013 by Grego Applegate Edwards
Sometimes you miss somebody until now for reasons that have nothing to do with the music. Pianist Billy Lester is one...for me anyway. And I have no idea why I have. But I have. Until now and his solo piano CD Storytime (Jujikaan jka001). Here's a cat laying down his own compositions-improvisations in a mode that takes on Sal Mosca and Lennie Tristano as primary influences and goes somewhere very good with them. He has the outside voicings, some of that walking left hand, a bop-inflected horn and chord thing (which Bud had plenty to do with too).
I found myself responding to the creativity that Mr. Lester has out front. This is good! Billy Lester works in a tradition I respect much, and he becomes himself by so doing. You like that tradition, then this is for you!
Review in Jazz Weekly
July 3 2013 by George W. Harris
"...Billy Lester’s got an inquisitive touch to his collection of originals. Each composition comes across like an undulating story, you feel like you’re being taken on some sort of excursion on songs like “Lightning Man,” “Dark Streets” and “Another Dream.” His sense of swing comes from the bop era, as his “Ode to Bud Powell” reveals, but there’s an inquisitive and assertive sense of Monkish dark experimentation as well as revealed on “Lullabye” and “Sal Mosca.” Impressive and extremely well thought out.
Review in Jazz Times
June 8 2013 by Scott AlbinEach year a number of outstanding solo jazz piano CDs are released, and two stand-outs so far in 2013 are Neil Alexander's Darn That Dream: Solo Piano Vol. 1, and Billy Lester's Storytime.... Among Lester's many influences are Lennie Tristano, Tristano disciple (and Lester's teacher) Sal Mosca, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Tatum, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller. As shown on his trio and quartet sessions, Lester is fond of skillfully reharmonizing or inverting the chords of standards to the point that the original tune is often virtually undetectable. Alexander and Lester take separate paths stylistically on these solo recordings, but the end result is the same-- spirited, compelling, purposeful, and technically accomplished piano jazz.
Lester's CD in turn is launched with "Prologue," and its atonal start leads to bluesy note clusters and sonorous chords, and then some boppish right-hand phrases. Some counterpoint elements, stride rhythms, arresting tumbling runs, walking left-hand bass lines, catchy motifs, and insistent staccato punctuations, all coalesce into a driving and swinging segment that fades to an elegant conclusion. "Lullaby" begins with probing lyricism and a repeating motif, and Lester uses cascading runs and twirling figures to amplify his objective, as it soon becomes apparent that the chord changes of "Body and Soul" have been his guiding light all along. Off-kilter Thelonious Monk flavored runs introduce "Lightning Man," and it also quickly emerges as a "Body and Soul" derived improvisation. This time there's more tension at a quicker tempo, with a diversity of textural and rhythmic devices, all at the service of Lester's sharply focused thematic imagination. "Ode to Bud Powell" features Lester's dense and rapid extended sequences and captures Powell's confident swagger circa 1949 or so, but this 2:29 vignette turns out to be just a heady prelude to a melody never played.
"Dark Streets" has a choppy bop line, a Monkish motif, and then Lester's propulsive, prolonged contrapuntal conversation between hands that is rhythmically buoyant and in restless motion thematically, riffing and winding with logic and gusto. Lester's "Bonanza" (all 11 compositions are his), has a reflective rubato prelude, and gradually unfolds an infectious rhythmic pulse as the pianist inculcates more chords and lengthy delineations into the mix, with lively left-hand bass lines that fit seamlessly into the absorbing flow. "Sal Mosca" is a tribute to Lester's mentor, and the pianist swings heartily through his surging phraseology, prodded by his devilishly enticing left-hand supplementary patterns, and one hears "Yesterdays" as the piece's foundation. Lester closes with "Encore," a pleasantly upbeat mid-tempo number consisting of overlapping voicings, recurring motifs, rich chords, and Lester's characteristically gratifying interplay between hands, yet another example of a fascinating, harmonically attractive sustained and cohesive improv in search of a desired, yet hardly missed, resolving theme.
A letter from Howard Mandel
Story Time is really connoisseur jazz. It shows off your unique, extremely well-informed and very imaginative musical approach, in full swing — as it were, and as it is! — at what seems like an ever higher level of daring and mastery. You open up dimensions of humor, wit, possibility, comfort, relaxation, ache, inquiry, discovery, adventure (not necessarily in that order). I don't know where you're going to go, but follow along, amused to recognize much of the language and some of the references, then you get there, and that was fun — how'd you do it? Through some sort of free-flowing association. Doesn't matter what the song is, the song is you. Cool, Billy, great one, thanks."
—Howard (Howard Mandel, author, educator, president Jazz Journalists Association, blogger @ www.artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz)
Review in Connoisseur Jazz
"Billy Lester is an accomplished pianist. His technical mastery of his chosen instrument matches that of the major classical pianists today - his fingers can move almost beyond the speed of sound but the sound they produce is deeply personal and sincere and fascinatingly fine.
All the works on this CD are composed by Billy Lester and his title for the collection is fitting: he opens with Prologue that is like a theme and variations but soon gives over into raucous jazz - it is an overture for what is to follow. From there every one of the eleven pieces is a story - 'constructed like a narrative, using as its contextual arc with each track as the content.' There are moments in Lester's music that touch on ideas suggestive of Lester's heroes - Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell to name a few - while at the same time everything this man plays holds the stamp of his own now easily identifiable 'sound'.
Lester's son James Lester writes fondly of his father's gifts: 'This is something special. Because when childhood evaporates into a series of distilled memories, there is nothing sweeter than to be whisked back to a time of innocence and told a story.' And that is precisely what this is excellent CD of music called STORY TIME by Billy Lester is all about. Brilliant work fills the room when you listen and it seems so personal."
Review in thejazzword.blogspot.com
"Storytime is an engaging set of solo piano originals, reminiscent in style and substance to classic bebop with thematic winding around standard-based harmonies. What keeps this eleven-track release fresh is Billy Lester's ability to converse between hands, incorporate dissonance and tension, and keep things moving at a delightfully swinging pace."
Review in midwestrecord.com
BILLY LESTER/Storytime: "Howard Mandel absolutely flipped out over this session, and while it’s not without it’s merits, we point our arrow here at a mass audience. Would the masses dig this left of center, solo jazz piano date? Well, they would if the masses were into Monk and Bud Powell. If someone were to do a biopic about Monk or Powell, they would be a fool not to get Lester to do the score, but if you’re looking for something more along the lines of cocktail jazz, this cat and his skills are going to sail right past you."
Chris Spector, Editor and Publisher, www.midwestrecord.com
Review in Elite Syncopations Jazz Radio Show
Those that studied with Sal (Mosca) and Lennie (Tristano) seem always elicit one ineluctable characteristic and that is to go deep -- with Billy Lester I find I can only go one or two tunes at a sitting before the gravitas is swirling and I need stop and rearrange my molecules!
-- Mark Weber - The Elite Syncopations Jazz Radio Show KUNM Albuquerque