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David Morgenroth

Missoula-based pianist David Morgenroth released his fourth album, "Verdant," earlier this month.

One of Missoula's pre-eminent pianists has released his first new studio recording since 2010.

It's David Morgenroth's fourth solo album, and his first since "Alone with Duke," in which he tackled Ellington's catalog sans rhythm section.

"Verdant" was recorded in 2010 in just a day and a half in Los Angeles with three veteran jazz musicians: Bob Sheppard on soprano and tenor saxophones, Chris Colangelo on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums.

Morgenroth has a long friendship with Sheppard, who's played with A-list names like pianist Chick Corea and songwriter Randy Newman, and toured with Steely Dan.

"As a musician in general, he is one of the premier soprano saxophone players in the world," Morgenroth said in a phone interview from Texas.

He cited Sheppard's "beautiful sound" on the instrument, "which is notoriously difficult to play in tune and to play with the same kind of sound quality in different registers."

Morgenroth pointed to Sheppard's pairing of the modern jazz language with the lyrical quality of greats such as Lester Young and Ben Webster.

Backing the front line is the rhythm section of Joe La Barbera and Chris Colangelo.

La Barbera is best known for serving as drummer in pianist Bill Evans' final working trio before his death.

Morgenroth described La Barbera as a consummate musician who has cut anything extraneous from his playing, and a sympathetic person as well as instrumentalist.

"It can be intimidating to walk into a room with someone of his stature," Morgenroth said, but "the first thing he does is put you at ease."

Playing with a drummer like him is akin to "floating on air, in a way," Morgenroth said.

He and bassist Chris Colangelo lock in well together, Morgenroth said, and he described Colangelo is an aggressive player, "and I like that in a bass player."

And then there's Morgenroth's piano playing. The diverse program shows off his taste, range and touch, whether in uptempo post-bop solos ("Counterplot") or in graceful balladry ("If I Could See You Now").

It shows off his writing, too: "Verdant" includes five Morgenroth originals.

They include modern, "straight-eight" tunes such as "Meridian," which reminds Morgenroth of something that keyboard heavyweight Joe Zawinul's soulful, fusion-esqe writing.

The album opener, "Barbara," is an original dedicated to Morgenroth's spouse, Barbara Koostra, who was a professional clarinet player and is now the director of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.

"¡Macanudo!" is a 5/4 Latin tune, with a name inspired by an expression that Morgenroth's friends from Chile would use. It means "fantastic" or "cool," in addition to being the name of a cigar.

"Estate," (pronounced es-tat-tay, Italian for "summer") was written by Italian jazzman Bruno Martino.

"It's Magic" is an old Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn tune that Morgenroth first heard in a Bugs Bunny cartoon as a kid. The most well-known version is by Doris Day, which Morgenroth described as maudlin and sappy. He's rearranged it as a fast waltz for "Verdant."

Morgenroth cut one standard, "If I Could See You Now," as part of the traditional practice of including a ballad that features the tenor saxphonist.

It was written by Carl Sigman and Tadd Dameron, who Morgenroth called "one of the unsung heroes of jazz."

Morgenroth, a Sentinel High School graduate, has been a mainstay of the Missoula musical scene for decades. In addition to his solo jazz work, he also plays classical, and has been vocalist Eden Atwood's preferred accompanist for some time, including on two recordings.

If you haven't seen his name in the listings as much lately, it's because he's been studying for a doctorate the past three years at the University of North Texas in Denton.

Before enrolling, he began looking at job requirements for teaching at the university level, and noted that the preference was shifting from a master's degree to a doctorate.

A doctorate in jazz studies is a relatively new thing, he said, but it may soon become a requirement.

While Morgenroth has been a regular at the Buddy DeFranco Jazz Festival at the University of Montana, he has scheduling conflict this year.

He does get back to Montana "every chance I get," he said, and hopes to perform a local tribute to DeFranco, who passed away on Christmas Eve, later in the year.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.