Clarinetist and saxophonist Ken Peplowski has been a first-call sideman for decades, appearing on albums by the likes of Hank Jones, Leon Redbone, Charlie Byrd, Peggy Lee, George Shearing, and even Madonna. He has also recorded something like 30 albums as a leader, many of them brilliant. It will be hard for him to top this one, however. Supported by a trio consisting of pianist Shelly Berg, bassist Tom Kennedy, and drummer Jeff Hamilton, Peplowski gently but firmly establishes his mastery of multiple modern jazz genres without coming across as a show-off or sacrificing taste and musicality. The album's opening track, "The Thespian," serves almost like an opera overture, summarizing the stylistic themes to come: opening in a soft ballad mode, it suddenly and seamlessly shifts into straight-ahead bebop, then veers off into modal, almost impressionistic territory before coming back to earth on the out chorus. When Peplowski begins trading fours with Berg, it sounds like a genial but spirited conversation between old friends, which, in fact, it is. That track alone is nearly worth the price of the CD, but others follow that are just as good: the quietly soaring "Love's Disguise" (to which Peplowski's clarinet provides a particularly lovely note of melancholy grace), a handful of utterly gorgeous ballads (including "When Joanna Loved Me" and "A Ship Without a Sail"), and the light and lively "Peps," written by Berg for Peplowski. Oddly, the last three tracks on the program were pulled from a self-produced recording he made in 2007; one is a duo with bassist Greg Cohen, one a trio number with Cohen and vibraphonist Chuck Redd. But the final track is the funnest of them all: a duo version of "Rum and Coca Cola" played in homage to Professor Longhair at a benefit show shortly after Hurricane Katrina. It features Peplowski accompanied only by drummer Joe Ascione, and the variations he spins on this simple tune over the course of more than five uninterrupted minutes are a wonder to hear. It's a sweet, charming, and jaw-droppingly virtuosic finale to a brilliant album.
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AllMusic Review by Rick Anderson