Okonski: Magnolia

Label boss asks percipiently if the dismal result of his 'jazz-leaning' project with classically trained pianist Steve Okonski is jazz at all

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Few jazz records come more uneventful than this brief debut album by a piano trio named after its pianist leader, Steve Okonski. It’s uneventful and therefore disappointing in three senses: the mood is over-pensive and dismal; it seems not to belong to any idea of jazz as a vibrant (albeit sometimes contextually melancholic) music; and it results from a desire on the part of its Ohio recording company for a “jazz-leaning” project.

Magnolia doesn’t lean enough, if at all. In a liner note impossible to read without squinting or a magnifying glass, Colemine Records boss Terry Cole says he wonders if the end result is jazz at all. And so say all of us. It’s not enough to extemporise, however lightly, with standard jazz instrumentation; there has to be life and direction. This album goes nowhere and is often in need of a metaphorical cattle prod.

Then there’s the Colemine house piano on which Okonski, described as classically trained, performs. Its sound is eccentric, yet it seems oddly suited to the plodding wistfulness of Old Friend, to the sombre Runner Up with its ascending melody weighted by descending chords to the bell-tolling that militates – intentionally? – against the simplicity of Song For My Sister’s Son. And so on.

“Plodding” aptly describes the whole album, on which drums and bass serve only a perfunctory purpose, with bassist Michael Montgomery going arco on Walking To A Home and the vaguely crepuscular Dark Moon.

Cole’s references to “jazz snobbery” and Magnolia‘s fugitive genre status are not so much unhelpful as indefensible when the album was the outcome of his wish to cross “producing a jazz record” off his to-do list.

Discography
Runner Up; Field Museum; Old Friend; Dark Moon; Song For My Sister’s Son; Walking To A Home; Sunday (29.26)
Steve Okonski (p); Michael Montgomery (b); Aaron Frazer (d). Ohio, 2020-21.
Colemine Records CLMN 12053