There I was, minding my own business and listening to my local jazz radio station (remember jazz radio?) when suddenly I heard a very gifted piano trio playing a bopish cover of James Taylor's quintessential hit "Fire & Rain". Why hasn't anyone else done this before? I wondered in stunned amazement, completely forgetting about Hubert Laws' version on his 1971 album Afro-Classic. Only later was I to discover that this trio was led by drummer Tad Britton, with pianist Marc Seales and bassist Jeff Johnson, and had recorded this outstanding album for Seattle's Origin Records in 2007.
"Fire & Rain" was unavoidable if you lived in the USA during the 1970s, even if you didn't regularly seek out the music of what came to be known as "the singer-songwriters". Clocking in at 10:46, this version is an absolute show-stopper. Starting slowly, the trio moves through four verses and choruses. Each time around, Seales picks up the tempo and ranges farther and farther from the famous melody line. Then Johnson takes his best solo on the album, and the group runs through one more repeat of the verse and chorus. An extended coda follows, and suddenly you'd swear Keith Jarrett is sitting in, bluesily vamping it up like never before. Finally there's a quiet fade, and all one can say is, "WOW!"
So what of the rest of the album? In spite of a well-rounded variety of moods and tempi, there's almost an ECM Records-like aura to these performances. Britton (who originally hails from South Dakota - thus the album title) does an excellent job in choosing material and allowing Seales and Johnson to continuously steal the show. This is not a typical "drummer's album", and Britton is content to let each song dictate the necessary percussion. There's a rousing, rambunctious version of Bill Evans' "Time Remembered", a more leisurely take of George Duke's "Love Reborn", and an uptempo cover of Steve Swallow's "Falling Grace" that strays very far from more familiar versions. A brief run-through of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" is sure to bring a smile.
There are some recording/engineering issues with this album that prevent it from being an out-of-left-field (left coast?) masterpiece. On Jeff Johnson's ballad "Dark Kiss" and the peaceful closer, "The Windmills of Your Mind", Britton's brushes are miked too closely and are far too loud: it sounds like there's a windstorm or crashing ocean just outside the studio. On Britton's one brief solo piece, "Red Drum", the toms are overly resonant to the point of distraction. Throughout the album, Johnson is not recorded to his best advantage, and even when soloing seems buried too far low in the mix.
Some might complain this album is too short (48:35), but this is just the outstanding discretion of not overworking a good studio session. In spite of its minor imperfections, Black Hills is definitely a keeper and worth your while if only for "Fire & Rain", and for resisting the obvious temptation to cover Vince Guaraldi.