Jacky Terrasson, unlike too many of his peers, is no jazz revivalist. That point is made perfectly clear on Terrasson's "What It Is," the fourth album from the Berlin-born pianist who grew up in Paris, studied jazz at Berklee College in Boston, gigged in Chicago and served in the French army -- all before backing jazz singer Dee Dee Bridgewater in Europe. Here, Terrasson cultivates his original vision with inventive arrangements and a willingness to venture beyond the jazz canon. Who besides maybe Herbie Hancock or young axeman Charlie Hunter would work Pink Floyd war horse "Money" and Ravel's "Bolero" into his album's mix?
Unlike Terrasson's 1998 album, "Alive," which featured a tight, coherent piano trio focused on a mix of covers and originals, "What It Is" wanders from one style to another, mixing and matching players along the way. "Money" flies on Gregoire Maret's smoky harmonica declarations, flutist Jay Collins' air-hanging counter-lines and the leader's acoustic and electric fills. "Bolero" sort of tumbles into being with piano swirls, producer Mino Cinelu's subversive rumbling percussion and, eventually, Jaz Sawyer's hopping backbeat.
The rest of the album is just as incongruous. "What's Wrong With You!" is a frantic bebop number, a showcase for Michael Brecker's rampaging tenor sax and the pianist's nervy two-fisted improvisation. "Little Red Ribbon," written for a friend who died of AIDS, is all crystalline melody and shimmering cymbals. And Xiomara Laugart's sultry vocals, Richard Bona's rubbery electric bass and the warm Fender Rhodes on "Better World" are reminiscent of the first incarnation of Chick Corea's Return to Forever.
Radio programmers, who thrive on easily accessible formats, probably won't find a lot of air time for "What It Is." So much the better: The album works because of its crazy juxtapositions, the way it gets tension by from placing Maret's seductive harmonica out front on the bluesy "Toot-Toot's Tune," and later switching to simmering bossa nova on "Baby Plum." It's a record that deserves to be heard more than one tune at a time.