Josh Paxton, Standard Deviation (Independent)

With Josh Paxton’s third album, Standard Deviation, it’s past time to add another name to the list of outstanding pianists working in the greatest music city in the world, New Orleans. Like all the others, Paxton has his own style. His is a combination of elements drawn from the New Orleans tradition and his own training in the classics and the jazz tradition. Paxton made his bones with a series of transcriptions of James Booker solos and he shares Booker’s penchant for unlikely juxtapositions and virtuoso playing, traits he uses to great effect here on a jaunty version of Thelonious Monk’s “Four In One” and the impressive reading of Steve Masakowski’s “Sidewalk Strut.” His wonderful touch backing vocalist Debbie Davis on jazz standards comes to the fore here on three of the album’s showpieces—Tommy Wolf’s “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” Jerome Kern’s “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Poinciana,” a 1936 composition derived from a Cuban folk song. Paxton’s ability to sound like two different pianists playing at the same time really comes across on the latter performance. He gives “Harlem Blues” a ragtime feel and “St. Louis Blues” a thoughtful, almost conversational exchange between the melody and his embellishment before taking it on an excursion into a clave section, then his own airborne exposition. On each turn around he twists the screw a little tighter, blithely dancing across the keys. He recasts Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” by combining its hymn-like quality with the joyous gospel expression of “Down By the Riverside.” And of course he covers Booker with a postmodern version of “Gonzo” by playing the theme on a Leslie-effected melodica and accompanying himself on piano. The effect is something like an unearthed Dave “Baby” Cortez hit from the 1960s—or maybe a twisted alternate version of “Topkapi.” His collaboration with the wacky genius Beth Patterson in the great bouzouki-piano duo ZoüKeys peers out from under this totally madhouse cover.