Bill Heller, Passage Review
by Ferell Aubre
Pianist Bill Heller is best known as the keyboardist for the legendary GRAMMY-nominated jazz group the Rippingtons. His first Rippingtons record was Topaz in 1998, and he has been performing with the band since 2001. In addition, Heller is credited on numerous albums credits as a player and or producer. His current 2021 release is titled Passage, contains 12 original tunes by Heller and features a cavalcade of heaty hitters, including Jonathan Butler, Steve Jordan, Will Lee, Marc Antoine, Ken Navarro, Jeff Kashiwa, Brandon Fields, Andy Snitzer, Allen Hinds, Paula Atherton, Dave Karasony, Brian Dunne, Joel Rosenblatt, Frank Bellucci, Rico Belled, Dave Anderson, and Mike Hall, and many more.
The album eases in with “Passage,” a moody piece that offers a haunting build illuminated by steel pan and percussion with John Arrucci. Each player layers in a sonicscape of depth and virtuosity. The solo by guitarist Russ DeSalvo is especially of note building, with each note to a release that once again builds to the piece’s crescendo. I could easily picture myself driving mountain roads while listening. Overall, it’s a dramatic composition that could easily be used in any motion picture soundtrack as well.
A grooving tune, “Again Later,” is dripping with groove, sticked by Joel Rosenblatt, deeply set in the pocket by bassist Dave Anderson, the track is profoundly grooving. This time the track is revved up by guitarist Allen Hinds and tenorist John Scarpulla who turns out tasty sax lines. Heller is front and center with Hammond, and it’s smokin’. Trumpeter Barry Danielian and trombonist Ozzie Melendez add excellent punctuation to the melody for a funking good time.
“Leaving Orbit” is aptly title, beginning with a clip from what sounds like Apollo 11 and its historic achievement. Drummer Dave Karasony hits hard with a big studio drum sound that immediately signals this is epic. Heller layers in keyboard with swells and sonics that add a celebratory mood. Rheagan Osteen on french horn and Dan Levin on trombone thicken the sounds while Hinds takes a stirring guitar solo. The song has a big production sound that sticks past the listen, ending the album on a high note.
Throughout, Passage is an impressive listen. Heller composes with finesse and verve. He surrounds himself with top-shelf players that dig into the nuances of his writing with great result. Heller has a way of writing that looks at the big picture, and the result is a satisfying listen throughout. Nothing is predictable or contrived, and Heller keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout, making for a savory album experience.