While the beautiful sound Willis coaxes from his instrument at times recalls McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor and Herbie Hancock, the eight tracks are all uniquely personal—worthy of compositional refinement and future exploration.
Willis's Sanctuary reveals once again his keyboard mastery, composing and arranging skills—and a propensity for spiritual, serious music and has produced a beautiful series of highly personal works which delve quietly into questions of peace, sorrow, and spiritual transformation.
– Franz A. Matzner
Larry Willis, for too long a time unjustly under-recorded as a leader, happily has found a home as Mapleshade Records music director for the past 12 years. The Maryland-based label has afforded the veteran New Yorker a multitude of opportunities to demonstrate his imposing talents as a pianist, composer, arranger and producer, but Sanctuary is easily the best of these efforts to date. The album of spiritually motivated music captures Willis at the height of his powers in a variety of situations that graciously draw the listener into his brilliantly conceived music.
The opening "The Maji," a cheerful composition for jazz quintet (featuring fellow Fort Apache members Joe Ford and Steve Berrios on saxophones and drums and DC veterans Ray Codrington and Steve Novosel on trumpet and bass) immediately makes clear the leader's considerable capability for creating memorable melodies in even the most conventional of settings. "Sanctuary" is a beautiful piece by Willis for trio and the ten-piece Rick Schmidt strings, adeptly arranged by Ford. The pianist masterfully arranged his own "Good Friday" for soprano sax with piano and strings to portray a mood that is mournful without being maudlin.
On "Brother Ed," Willis creatively crafts a satisfying new melody, featuring Ford's alto and Codrington's trumpet, utilizing the familiar chord changes from Wayne Shorter's "Speak No Evil." Sanctuary's centerpiece is the stirring orchestration by the leader of the traditional hymn "There Is A Balm Gilead" for piano, strings and the emotive tenor voice of Artie Sherman.
Codrington's "Thank You Lord," a "prayer without words," is another enjoyable outing for quintet, served well by Novosel's relaxed bass line and Berrios' compelling mallet on tom tom rhythm.
Willis displays his skill as a solo pianist on his three-movement arrangement of a gospel song from his youth, "Were You There." "Fallen Hero," the pianist's moving memorial to his late brother, featuring another of Ford's sensitive string arrangements, is a fitting finale to this poignant and affecting date.
– Russ Must
I’m still blown away by the majesty and quietly swinging power of Willis's solo piano on this, his first Mapleshade session. For 20 years, he’d wanted to record his jazz interpretations of the church music he grew up with. Here’s the fruit of those creative years. Willis uses dynamics and silences to maximize the emotional power and drama of "Take My Hand" "Precious Lord" and "Motherless Child." These heartfelt, introspective performances build slowly. "This Little Light Of Mine" and "Let Us Break Bread Together" are brighter and less solemn. Duke Ellington’s "Come Sunday" fits perfectly with the hope and sorrow of these hymns and spirituals,” Four-Stars according to DownBeat. Not to mention this is possibly the best jazz piano sound ever on CD.
I lack the words for Larry Willis. His “Poor Eric” on Jackie McLean’s Right Now! gave a good indication that one of the greatest talents in recorded music had arrived. (If he had pre-“Poor Eric” recordings, I would like to hear them!) My personal discovery of Willis came with Bobby Battle’s "The Offering," which I had mostly bought for David Murray. Willis blew my mind ten times as much as Murray ever had, and my mind continues to be blown by everything I hear by this man (for example, Hamiet Bluiett’s "Young Warrior, Old Warrior" and Roy Hargrove’s "Moment to Moment"). Finally, I got this all-Willis piano album, and it fully lives up to my hopes as to how it would sound. Willis’s wisdom and kindness make every track a celebration. An exalted moment. Do not miss out on this recording! – D. Kresh
Larry Willis lends his considerable talents to nine solo piano pieces which are given such readings that you do not have to be a fan of gospel to enjoy. Yet they resonate deeply. The sense of spirituality is there, in a very profound way that speaks not only of God, but of creativity and piece. "Motherless Child" is given a wonderful reading. "This Little Light of Mine" is absolutely beautiful. A very unique reading. I sat there mesmerized through this. "Take My Hand Precious Lord" renders a view of the vast horizons and the mysteries that lie beyond.
Willis in Paris
At the Duc des Lombards, veteran pianist Larry Willis showed how refined and sophisticated his keen harmonic sense was, building on the interplay between bassist Blake Meister and drummer Eric Kennedy.
Whether exploring the melody of “Alone Together” or the modal feel of “Nardis,” Willis brings lavish colors and a mean swing to everything he touches. His own “Ethiopia” was quite moving.
Over the course of Willis’ career—which includes singing an Aaron Copland opera under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, and playing with Jackie McLean, Blood, Sweat & Tears and Roy Hargrove—he has accumulated a diverse wealth of musical experiences. Today, he is truly one of the underrated masters of contemporary piano.
– Jean Szlamowicz , DownBeat
If Trees Could Talk,
Larry Willis and Hamiet Bluiett
Sometimes, the oddest pairings work out. In the case of these encounters between baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett and pianist Larry Willis, an apparent stylistic contrast contributes to the distinctiveness of the duets. Away from the World Saxophone Quartet, Bluiett can be a single-minded, raucous, potentially overwhelming force. He's determined to probe the outer limits of his horn's range. On tracks like "Ballad For Frederick," he reaches for high notes other baritone saxophonists wouldn't (and shouldn't) attempt. "Whenever We Could" and "Some Other (Schizophrenic) Blues" indulge Bluiett's taste for rowdy blues.
Larry Willis's playing is introspective and even-tempered where Bluiett is impulsive and volatile. Though each man is featured on solo tracks, the baritone horn is clearly the focal point of this session. Willis complements Bluiett beautifully, supporting him with chiming chords and elaborating on the melodies. On "Ask Me Now," the pianist's sensitivity brings out his partner's mellow side. Willis also plays straight man through the saxophonist's swooning, then screaming treatment of "Cherry Pink, Apple Blossom White."
Mapleshade's recording of the proceedings is predictably fine. You hear depth and open space surrounding Bluiett's baritone. Without competition from drums and bass, you hear his sonic explorations clearly, from the piercing whistle and clacking of keys at the high end down to the deep grainy tone when Bluiett plumbs the depths. Chronologically, this was Bluiett's first date for Mapleshade, shelved for six years in favor of other projects. Engaging and varied, If Trees Could Talk deserved a better fate. We'll have to resume our wait for a new Larry Willis CD.
Jon Andrews, DownBeat
These beautiful bari sax/piano duos were the first encounter between these jazz giants. This recording lights up the gorgeous contrasts between Bluiett’s huge R&B-based sound and Larry’s lush, romantic piano harmonies. They swing from stride and Monk to loft jazz, Coltrane and free improvisation. The Absolute Sound says “an achingly lovely . . . often magical session . . . Sound quality is superb.”