Serenata, the new album from pianist Gregg Karukas, is the first in a series of solo piano works I’ve recently received that offer spectacular sound quality as well as an unusual approach to composition. Described as “piano impressions of Milton Nascimento Clube Da Esquina and Dori Caymmi,” Serenata is the first solo piano recording by Karukas after losing his wife to cancer, and perhaps that’s why he reframes these Latin jazz songs into something more romantic.
The reason for Gregg Karukas to transform these songs into something else is simple. It’s a matter of shared memories, of shared appreciations, of taking melodies and infusing them with lots of love and a subtle tinge of poignancy. You’ll only detect the faintest rhythmic cues from these performances that the original arrangements were flushed out with lots exotic percussion, perhaps an extroverted horn player or three. Instead, he plays and injects all those complex emotions into the spaces between the piano notes and the result is something unexpected.
I’m talking, quite frankly, about pop music. I’m not talking about just any contemporary pop or R&B music you might hear on your next trip to Safeway, but that best period of pop–the 1960s. There’s an attention to developing somewhat complex melodies, like Bacharach at his best, that seems to be both capricious and the result of a considerable amount of musical knowledge. This is alchemy usually reserved for veteran songwriters and arrangers, and Gregg Karukas definitely qualifies as such.
What’s particularly stunning about Serenata is how Gregg Karukas blends his own original compositions with classics from Nascimento such as “Travessia,” “Clube da Esquina No. 2” and “Ponta de Areia.” It’s a delightful exercise to extract those Latin jazz flourishes from unabashed and candid piano work, filled with the purest expressions of love and loss, but it’s much more uplifting and optimistic than it sounds. Karukas can dive deep into those empty spaces to catch a quick breath, but it’s his imagination that’s truly captivating.