Gregg Karukas’ extraordinary success over the past 30-plus years as a #1 charting smooth jazz artist and one of the genre’s busiest sidemen make it easy to overlook the deeper elements of versatile composer/keyboardist’s expansive resume – including winning a Grammy in 2013 for his work with new age pianist Omar Akram and his many years of touring with Brazilian greats Sergio Mendes, Dori Caymmi and Ricardo Silvera in the 90’s.
Both of those extracurriculars come into play on Serenata, a thoughtful, reflective and ultimately joyful work that marks Karukas’ first-ever solo piano album, his first release in over six years and first since losing his wife Yvonne to cancer. The unique concept – captured in the album subtitle “Piano Impressions of Milton Nascimento Clube Da Esquina and Dori Caymmi “ – grew out of a recent discovery of old cassettes of some of those Brazilian shows. Listening most attentively to his shows with Caymmi at the small L.A. club Le Café, where the singer often introduced Karukas as “my orchestra,” sparked a powerful emotional reaction.
The keyboardist also re-discovered the video of his 1992 wedding where Caymmi sang “O Cantador” – a gently wistful piece that is one of the emotional centerpieces on the generous 15 track collection. Karukas also thought back to memories of his early days driving to gigs in his hometown of Washington, DC, listening to Nascimento imports. Combining all of these inspirations with the isolation of the COVID-19 lockdown created an ideal palette for him to explore his deeper piano artistry and find the kind of healing and hope that only the music of the heart can bring. That’s the sparkling magic Karukas shares throughout from the elegant, seductive Nascimento-penned opening tracks “Travessia” and “Ponta de Aeria” to the equally subtle graces of “Club da Esquina” and Caymmi’s “Historia Antga” and the playful hypnotic romp “Paisagem de Janela.”
In a good way, Serenata’s subtitle mentioning the Brazilian influences isn’t quite accurate because nearly half the tracks are delightful ultra-melodic Karukas originals that fit in perfectly among the works of the masters. These include solo piano reworkings of two gems from his mid-90’s smooth jazz classic Sound of Emotion (including, naturally, the soulful, tender-hearted tribute “Dori’s Song”) and moody originals whose titles (“Better Days,” “Lament (Final Embrace),” “Long Ago”) capture his process of acknowledging and letting go of the sorrows of the past and embracing the grand possibilities of the road ahead.
After so many years of in the pocket smooth jazz hit making, it’s wonderful to experience Karukas’ truest heart on display. To quote one of those earlier titles, that’s truly the sound of emotion coming through loud and clear.