With six previous albums under her belt, Oregon pianist Kerry Politzer is an esteemed mid-career musician with a deep and varied book of original tunes. The jazz scene moves quickly, however, and her new album In a Heartbeat serves as a striking reintroduction to an artist who should be far better known. Only a few years have elapsed since the release of her last project, 2019’s Diagonal, but that was a ravishing tribute to the oft-overlooked Brazilian composer Durval Ferreira. In a Heartbeat is her first album of originals in eight years, and it puts the focus back on her deeply engaging work as a composer and arranger.
A pianist with a bright, singing tone and a supple sense of swing, Politzer leads a quintet featuring a top-flight Portland cast including trumpeter Thomas Barber, Joe Manis on tenor and soprano sax and flute, bassist Garrett Baxter, and drummer George Colligan. Yes, that’s the same George Colligan far better known as a brilliant pianist via his work with jazz legends such as Jack DeJohnette, Buster Williams, and Lenny White and some 30 albums of his own. Colligan, who is Politzer’s husband, has played on her last four releases and is increasingly sought out as a drummer.
“A lot of this music was coming from my subconscious,” Politzer says. “Some of it came to me in a dream, and I’d wake up and write the rest of it down. But those early months of the pandemic always seemed like a dream. I wrote ‘Spring Day’ when going outside was one of the only places you could go and feel like life is almost normal again. This music is a product of the dreamlike headspace I was in during the pandemic.”
Not surprisingly, anxiety figures prominently in the emotional mix. Unhurried and a little relentless, the tune “3 A.M.” ripples with angst, building to a jarring conclusion that hangs in the air. In a bit of programmatic mercy, Politzer follows up with “Marble Maze,” a delightful, flute-driven piece inspired by her love of Brazilian music. Imagine Debussy buying rounds of caipirinhas for Hermeto Pascoal and John Coltrane. Based on a phrase from Billy Strayhorn’s classic “Raincheck,” Politzer’s joyously swinging “Umbrella Statement” references Portland’s famously damp climate. And the closer, “Goodbye,” is a loving farewell to her aunt that unfurls in a graceful arc, as if the performance is reluctant to end. It’s a fitting conclusion to an album that documents an eloquent and often inspired composer and bandleader responding to the strangest of times.
In pushing back against the pandemic’s isolation and the loss of work for musicians Politzer applied for and received grants from MusicPortland and the RACC for her Driveway Jazz Series project, which provided an outdoor venue for musicians during the summer of 2021. With In a Heartbeat she’s putting the spotlight back on her own work as a writer and bandleader who has delivered another captivating and fully realized set of music. “Composing is one of the things I enjoy the most,” she says. “I tend to be shy and I feel like I need to put myself out there. I need to make a statement.” The message is definitely coming through. •