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Friday, May 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jazz Etc.

Tastes of the traditional and the new

Seattle Times jazz critic

It's a great spring for pianists.

Latin jazz keyboardists Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba both came through town a couple of weeks ago.

This time, we've got a real spread of styles, with the masterful Mulgrew Miller and the promising young Seattleite Victor Noriega.

Miller is, to put it simply, one of the New York cats who make jazz happen, a rank-and-file journeyman who has appeared on more than 400 recordings.

Miller first pulled coats in Seattle backing Betty Carter and Woody Shaw, returning often during his nearly seven-year tenure with Tony Williams.

After nine albums as a leader for Landmark Records and Novus, starting in 1985, Miller became so frustrated by the paltry money record companies were offering, he didn't make an album under his own name for seven years.

Happily, in 2002, Miller embarked on a potent series for the tasteful Midwest label, MaxJazz, staking out a personal and distinctive territory.

In a way, it may have been a good thing Miller waited.

A player of tremendous physical authority and harmonic fluidity — he was first inspired by Oscar Peterson and dwarfs the instrument like a prizefighter — Miller didn't sprinkle the delicate herbs of melody over his thunderous modulations until fairly recently.

On his most recent recording, "Live at Yoshi's Vol. II," it is a pleasure to hear his looping, complex runs, articulated with such phenomenal finger power that each note, no matter how fast, sounds like its own percussive snap. One of his specialties is to alternate groups of four and three, which gives his playing a zippy lift.

But Miller's playing also has more balance now. On "Little Girl Blue," he limns the shape of the tune, Teddy Wilson-style, then dances a light fandango over the drummer's brushes, occasionally letting the air out of pillowy chords with the foot pedal.

As in his native Mississippi (where surely he absorbed the uplifting gospel feel that permeates the spirit, if not the letter, of his playing), thunderstorms share the heavens with sweet lilac breezes, as surely as the sun rises in the east.

Be sure to catch Miller with his trio — Ivan Taylor (bass) and Rodney Green (drums) — at 7 p.m. or 9:30 p.m. Monday at The Triple Door ($20-$23; 206-838-4333 or www.thetripledoor.net).

Imaginative ideas flow like water from University of Washington graduate and former Marc Seales student Noriega, who won Earshot's 2005 Emerging Artist of the Year award.

On his second album, "Alay," Noriega trains his imagination on his Filipino heritage, applying a smart variety of strategies to traditional songs.

"Pandangguhan," "Bayan Ko" and "Kuya" suggest classical influences, including the whimsical question marks of Erik Satie. "Saan Ka Man Naroroon" and "Maalaala Mo Kaya" combine skipping traditional rhythms with flat-out swing. "Harana" sounds like a slow-motion Cuban air and "Bahay Kubo" explores the dissonant, haunting arena of layered electronics with a fixed backbeat.

Noriega is a bit like a young Dave Brubeck. His music has a friendly, good-natured feel, no matter where he takes it, and his approach to crossing cultural boundaries is fresh.

The Victor Noriega Trio — Eric Eagle, drums; Willie Blair, bass — performs with Portland tenor saxophonist Tim Wilcox at 8 p.m. Thursday at Gallery 1412 ($5-$15; 206-322-1533 or www.gallery1412.org).

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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