Though New Orleans has been his home base for 20 years, keyboard ace Charlie Dennard knows quite a bit about travel. He has performed as a musical director for Cirque du Soleil shows that have brought him to more than a dozen countries over 15 years, and he’s still at it. His newest recording, Deep Blue, bubbles with a zest for travel, with musical imagery of strutting through New Orleans’ Garden District in weekend finery, coursing through a Middle Eastern desert or the urge to explore someplace still on one’s bucket list.
The all-originals project features Dennard’s trio with bassist Max Moran and drummer Doug Belote on three tracks. Guitarist Brian Seeger co-wrote two tracks and is one of 11 collaborators who expand the band to a quartet, quintet or octet on the other compositions.
The opener by the trio, “St. Charles Strut,” sets the travel tone with its sprightly second-line beat. It also makes it clear that Dennard learned much from mentor Ellis Marsalis about never overplaying. “Mojave” is an exotic desert tapestry in its musical imagery, featuring Eric Lucero on trumpet, Andrew McLean on tabla and sarod, and three of Dennard’s Cirque bandmates: Josh Geisler on bansuri flute, Marc Solis on flute, saxes and clarinet, and Carlos Lopez on percussion. “Wanderlust” (co-written with Seeger) is a quartet piece with a different vibe. Dennard and guitarist Steve Masakowski trade solos and variations built around its distinctive five-note melodic vamp, shifting into moods that are pensive at times, restless and searching at others.
Lucero and tenor saxophonist Brad Walker join the trio on the shimmering title track, “Deep Blue.” To my ears, Dennard’s playing here touches on the beauty, the power and the mystery of the oceans that surround us. The trio returns for the elegant and laid-back gem “Trois Fois.”
Dennard moves away from his beloved 1927 Steinway Model L grand piano for the last two tracks. He shifts to electric piano for a trio exploration of “Joe’s Crusade,” a genteel tip of the hat to the late Joe Sample. He brings an organ into the mix on “Father,” a soulful and stirring tribute to his dad, who passed away while the project was in production. There’s stunning guitar work from co-writer Seeger. The four-man horn line that digs into its spirit includes Lucero on trumpet and flugelhorn, Jason Mingledorf and Ray Moore on a variety of saxes, flute and clarinet, and Rick Trolsen on trombone.
Dennard’s fourth CD is a gem from start to finish.