Bill Anschell Standards Trio makes my Saturday night worth the trip

Bill Anschell works out the angles on this particular fetching piece of jazz formative fiction in his sold-out show this past Saturday at Tula’s Jazz Club.

I waited almost two months to see Northwest’s legendary pianist with the magic touch, Earshot Jazz Hall of Famer Bill Anschell. I even braved Seattle’s legendary traffic to make it to the legendary Tula’s Jazz Club on 2nd Ave. downtown, with five minutes to spare. And I almost never go downtown, because parking.

Anschell’s one of my all-time favorite pianists, one of those musicians who could literally play the “Alphabet Song” and sound cosmic. He’s also a nice guy, a little cynical, very self-effacing, brutally so at times, but lovable — able to talk to anyone, from the little old lady down the street to the executive producer of NPR’s “All Things Considered.” You get the feeling he means what he says, even if the joke’s on him. He knows he’s far from perfect, which only endears him more to his legion of devoted followers.

Tula’s was sold out this past Saturday — unheard of for jazz but testament to the unassuming man capable of unpacking rivulets of evolutionary music from pockets of pop-to-jazz in a rhythmic resistance reminiscent of South Indian classical music, the “insane” vocal Solkattu.

Anschell brought with him two respected Northwest sidemen he’s performed alongside often, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop. It’s the first time they’ve performed together onstage in Anschell’s Standards Trio, but not the first time they’ve performed.

When Anschell first played Tula’s years ago, he was with Johnson and Bishop — a fact that played out repeatedly throughout three sets of their sold-out show. Even more amazing, a good portion of the audience stuck around till the end. “That’s a good night, actually,” the pianist told me afterwards.

He showed his appreciation for the first to last guest by playing a fun and loose game of “Name That Tune,” telling the packed crowd that he and the bassist knew about 50 songs on the playlist, with Bishop ready to tag along. But, Johnson and Bishop had no idea which song Anschell would play next until they heard the first few chords.

After one or two songs, Anschell would ask audience members if they could name the tune. Then, he’d tease, “The next song is… I can’t tell you.”

By the time Anschell’s Standards Trio reached “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered,” a lush, romantic standard by Rodgers & Hart from the 1940 musical, “Pal Joey,” I was completely hooked.

Anschell may have brought Johnson and Bishop along for the ride, but when it came down to the ballads, he wasn’t playing around. He commanded center stage. He took on the role of the bewitched leading man, lingering on certain resonant notes as if to hold onto the melancholy just a little while longer, trying to make the fragile moment last before the damage was done.

As his hands hovered and slow-danced over the keys, lighter than air, notes in transit biding their time… an image of a mountain in an uprising appeared to me — cracks and all, one straight down the middle threatening to tear granite and wood into pieces. Anschell has this way, you see…

Most of the songs Anschell’s Trio played throughout the night felt like a suite of ballads, strung together … playing out the bittersweet ending of a torrid affair. Or maybe that’s just me.

After the crowds disappear, I go over to Anschell and Bishop at the bar, to ply them with the usual compliments. Man, you guys were great. What a privilege. It must be like catching up with old friends, but you’re onstage and you go so much deeper than we do.

Bishop jokes that their musical conversations are fairly shallow. “I’m [over here] like, ‘Hey Bill, how ya doin’?’ And he’s like, ‘Okay.’” The two laugh.

I still can’t believe I’m talking to these guys. John Bishop shook my hand. Speechless.

When I put in a future request for my favorite standard, Anschell interrupts, “Please tell me it’s not ‘Fever.’ Or, ‘Black Coffee,’ or ‘Summertime.’” Then, he and Bishop riff on the tired standards they would rather not play, ever.

I say it’s “My Funny Valentine,” and Anschell promises he’ll play it next time. Next time…

I leave them a $20 tip. They thank me for the homemade pumpkin bread. “It was delicious!” It’s 11:15 p.m. The Seattle crowd gathers around the bars outside, gathering steam. I drive home in a dream-like state.

If you missed his Tula’s gig, don’t worry. Bill Anschell dons the Quartet at North City Wine Bistro Nov. 29 in Shoreline, Wash. Guitarist Brian Monroney’s (Nearly Dan) on that one, so you know it’ll be extraordinary.

The piano man was also the subject of a recent All About Jazz interview with writer Paul Rauch, where he talks about his early start as a progressive rock fan who fell into jazz later.

Jazz Medium©: Feeling the music, one review at a time.

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