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Pianist showcases expanding skills

Mike Janzen Trio

Mike Janzen has accompanied Steve Bell for several years in a variety of ways, enough to establish himself as an accomplished keyboardist and arranger, but his first studio album further displays his broadening musical skills as a jazz writer and band leader. Janzen wrote most of the songs on Mombâcho, leading his trio (bassist George Koller and alternating drummers Ben Riley, Davide DiRenzo, and Larnell Lewis) on a successful journey through a variety of stylistic idioms.

The album’s range is foreshadowed in the first track, which moves between an upbeat, department-store-styled jazz theme and a driving, rhythmic groove. A funky 6/4 rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” is a stand-out, and highlights the trio’s skill at reworking popular songs in a subtle but recognizable way. The trio is particularly brilliant when playing around with funky fusion-based riffs, which often provide memorable hooks to keep listeners coming back.

The contrasting material, while competently performed, is often less inspiring. This fluctuation lends a somewhat inconsistent feel to the album. The two songs with vocals are quality stand-alone songs with strong spiritual content, but feel out of place in the mostly instrumental album.

Nonetheless, Janzen’s expertise and creativity on the keyboards remains consistent. Whether on organ, piano, or Rhodes piano, his skilful soloing throughout provides cohesion to the album.

It could be said that Mombâcho struggles with its identity, at times demanding the listener’s attention, while often content with playing mildly in the background. But if you’ve appreciated Janzen’s contributions to Steve Bell’s music, or you’re just looking for a quiet night with some quality jazz, Mombâcho delivers an enjoyable listen, with many tracks that call for repeated listening.

—Jeremy Penner is director of worship and media at Portage Avenue Church in Winnipeg, Man.

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