Buoyed By A Classical Touch

In the late 1970s Simon Nabatov was a budding classical pianist in the Soviet Union who could play Rachmaninov with one hand tied behind his back. If Sneak Preview is any indication, his chops haven't withered with time.

The prize-winning Moscow Conservatory student left the USSR in the early '80s for studies at Juilliard, becoming Keyboard magazine's "Best Pianist" of 1984. Along the way, Nabatov defected to jazz, gigging with such towering figures as trumpeter Chet Baker and tenor saxophonist George Adams and eventually settling in Cologne, Germany.

Yet Nabatov, 48, retains a telltale Russian classical virtuosity in his jazz work. His ability to blithely toss off technically treacherous, pyrotechnic passages is astonishing. He also employs an extensive knowledge of harmony and counterpoint to write smart, appealing tunes. These qualities are front and center on Sneak Preview, an excellent trio album with bass player Mark Helias and drummer Tom Rainey.

From the outset, on "For Steve" (RealAudio excerpt) (as in Lacy, the great soprano saxophonist), it's clear that Nabatov's conservatory-honed precision extends to the shading nuances essential in jazz. He persuasively juxtaposes impressionistic flourishes (perhaps a nod to Lacy's 30 years in Paris) with the type of spring-loaded motifs that are Lacy signatures.

On "One-Track Mind," (RealAudio excerpt) Nabatov opts for sly understatement in a solo whose elegant construction belies its offhanded demeanor. On the title tune, he evokes the sophistication of the Modern Jazz Quartet's great composer John Lewis, but favors a far more muscular brand of swing than the MJQ's pianist. Jazz may not be Nabatov's first musical language, but he speaks it with a fluent, natural ease.

Throughout the album, Helias and Rainey lend exemplary support and contribute engaging solos. The empathy they have for Nabatov's music after nearly a decade working together is evident on each track.