The Libretto Show
Release date: June 23, 2023
Keyboardist, pianist, composer and arranger Jeff Babko presents The Libretto Show, a vigorous duo foray recorded live at the budding Libretto Jazz Lounge in Paso Robles, California. In collaboration with heralded Canadian bassist David Piltch, Babko presents the first live album taped at this intimate, new venue.
A Steinway became the impetus for Babko’s association with the space. The multifaceted pianist, who has toured with household names such as TOTO, James Taylor and Sheryl Crow, stopped into a coffee shop one day and upon striking up a chat with the owner, Cory Jordan, discovered that the two of them held a mutual love for great pianos. Along with the coffee shop, Jordan had also just opened the intimate Libretto Jazz Lounge, furnished with a Steinway 9’ Model D “CD 213” – the first choice of pianists like John Williams, Emanuel Ax and Lang Lang.
While Libretto continued to grow as a destination for LA-based musicians, Babko conjured new ideas for an evening in the space. Six months after the venue opened, he left his own impression on the celebrated Steinway and invited the eminent David Piltch to join. Predicting that Piltch’s contributions would be as consummate as they were visceral, Babko knew he ought to have the performance taped. Recorded by engineer Jimmy Dixon and expertly mastered by Eric Boulanger, the seven-tune performance captured this brilliant bond while cataloging the extraordinary and singular pleasures of live jazz.
The Libretto Show opens with an illustrious arrangement of soul and blues legend Dr. John’s “Dorothy.” The spirited tribute, originally written for Dr. John’s mother, launched the evening with the essence of New Orleans. “The playfulness, the positivity. The heart of it,” Babko adds, describing the jazz haven.
The Babko original “Fair Enough” shifts gears while testing an unlikely chord exchange. The bandleader explains: “I wanted to explore the relationship of two chords that shouldn’t ever work together and see if there could be a shared, sympathetic space between them.” The composition effectively showcases a scrutiny toward groove, where Piltch’s masterful rhythmic backbone might convince listeners that this two-piece rhythm section has three.
Babko sheds light on the career of pianist Denny Zietlin with “Quiet Now.” The Zietlin original, popularized by Bill Evans, is played as composed. “Not every piece played in a jazz setting needs to become a vehicle for a blazing solo,” Babko adds. As such, he sees his reimagination as an expression of personal truth, accenting the subjectiveness of a written note.
Babko nods to his Latin influences on a rendition of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Ligia”
Babko’s wife, violinist Songa Lee joins for this enchanting track. The prolific violinist can be heard on “virtually every Hollywood movie score in the last 20 years,” and here offers a display of her privy to cinematic sounds through an alluring interpretation of Jobim’s melody. The infrequently played bossa nova track off Uruba was originally arranged by Claus Ogerman—Babko calls it “sublime”.
“Most of the music I seem to gravitate toward writing now is an exercise in distilling music to its essence and most simple,” Babko notes. And the rest of The Libretto Show accomplishes this. He delivers unforeseen and complex harmonies on the pensive, folk-brewed “Souvenirs of Hollywood,” which also nods to Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary.” On the other hand, listeners can recline on “Brethren From Another Methren”, a tribute to Babko’s friend and radio co-host DJ Brad Barker (JazzFM Toronto). The track is characterized by swing and jubilance, much like the playful banter between the two friends.
Evoking the compositional ethos of Ornette Coleman, “Blue and Red,” closes the album through an open melodic statement, landing the set on more free grounds. Piltch is distinctly centered here, and as Babko emphasizes, their heavy reliance on improvisation accentuates the pair’s connection. The beauty, expansiveness and spontaneity of The Libretto Show is reaffirmed here in the final seconds of the set as we hear the audience roar in applause and catch one patron shouting the word, “magic!”