Marc Riordan has established himself in my mind as one of the more intriguing musicians in Chicago: thoughtful, soulful, and creative, with an unmistakably solid feel. When I lived in the city, I first encountered him periodically as a drummer: gigging in Chicago’s still-flowering progressive jazz scene, playing sessions, and blasting people away as the drummer in the careening punk trio Wishgift.
But if Riordan hadn’t been quite as visible on the marquees as some other folks in town, it might have been because he was woodshedding. Riordan’s more recent passion has been the piano, delving deeply into both ragtime and bop with equal aplomb, and on his eponymous quartet’s debut release, Binoculars (on his own Club Nerodia imprint), his pianistic and composing chops reveal themselves to be highly attuned indeed.
Working here with Brooklyn-based altoist Peter Hanson, Daniel Thatcher (bass), and longtime Ken Vandermark collaborator Tim Daisy (drums), Riordan’s piano playing is most clearly influenced by Thelonious Monk, with Monk’s distinctive angularity and chord voicings cropping up consistently. But beyond the straight bop influence, Riordan has what to me is a distinctive ability to, in the course of a solo, suddenly make brief, highly lucid musical statements. (And actually, as a hopefully-not-too-revealing side note, there’s a parallel in that to how he communicates in person, which is interesting.) His most melodic solo statements are extremely interesting in this regard, like aphorisms, consistent with the close attention implied by the album’s title.
There are moments of straight energy music (see the opener “Little Dog”), but these tunes swing hard when called for, sometimes fairly straightforwardly before being broken down into a blocky mess, as on “Funometer” or “On The 6th.” The beautiful Latinesque fugue of “Magnetic Personality” reveals the effective interplay between Riordan and saxophonist Hanson – the two often act as a unit, with one forgoing comping or laying out to interject on top of the other’s solo. The title track revels in this approach as well, with the two lead instruments circling each other through a resourcefully off-kilter head. Elsewhere, ample time is given to showcase the rhythm section, as in Daisy’s subtly authoritative solo on the witty “I’ll Text You.” Quieter tunes like the gorgeous, classic-sounding ballad “Lesson Learned” and the actual Monk composition “A Merrier Christmas” reveal more clearly the bop affinity that both grounds this album and makes it distinctive.
Riordan as a leader is a useful sort of transitional figure here that’s necessary in an innovative scene like Chicago’s: versatile and skilled, with eyes on both the past and the future.