Review posted on Rotcod Zzaj

December 21, 2013 by Rotcod Zzaj

Billy Lester "UNABRIDGED"

It's been a long time since I reviewed Billy's fantastic jazz solo piano work (the last review was in issue # 134). On this May 2015 release, he again proves himself as a master of the keyboards in a BIG way! If you're not sure about that go LISTEN to Jamba Swing. riffs like youíve never heard before, and if youíre a totally dedicated fan of piano adventure, you won't be able to stop listening to his timeless playing.

If you look up the definition for "unabridged", you'll realize that this is a perfect title for his album - complete, entire, uncut - this is raw playing purely for the pleasure it can bring (for both the player and the listener). One of the oddest blues I've ever heard is Billy's Blues for Charlie Christian - odd because it's not at all what you would expect a blues to be - yet it clearly IS blues, with lots more notes than youíre used to hearing. "Spontaneous" is the best word to describe what he's doing, I believe; and that's especially true on my personal favorite of the eight tunes offered up, the 6:06 "SpreeIng". I give Mr. Lester a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with an "EQ" (energy quotient) rating of 4.98 for this adventurous album. You can learn more about this fascinating player by reading Billy's bio
Rotcod Zzaj

Review posted on Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange

December 21, 2013 by Mark S. Tucker

Solo piano albums are things to be approached with fear, caution, fevered brow, and wild hope. The piano, after all, is one of the most staccato and inflexible of all instruments available. Spawned from the even more hard-edged harpsichord, it presents an odd midground between the percussive and the chordophonic, able to transcend itself only through a very discerning mind and intimately knowledgeable hands. We've had more than our share of Steve Halperns, George Winstons, Liz Stories, and etc. Best of luck with their enterprises, and if they do well, excellent, more power to 'em, but my dollars won't be among the inflow. I want more challenging material, more daredevil and/or refined thinking, something I can sink not just my fangs into but molars as well, taste buds too, then roll up my sleeves and wrestle with the presentation. Billy Lester's Storytime is just such a beast and, in that, is not going to be the source of fascination for everybody that it is for me and will be for connoisseurs.

Lester favors narrative, musical novel-making, story-telling (hence the CD title), and puts a rather impressive degree of muscle into doing so. Though the initial Prologue commences true to its namesake, gently, expositionally, matters get rapidly meaty and unhedging. Not one to prance around the subject matter, Lester attacks his instrument with gusto and confidence. His influences are easily discerned because he tributizes two of them explicitly in Remembering Bud Powell and Sal Mosca, but I'm telling you here and now that you'll also detect Keith Jarrett and even Sun Ra, the former in improv and profundity, the latter in echoes of the mutated bayou traditionalism Ra exhibited when he wasn't noiseuring in that spectacularly individual vocabulary of his. There's also some of Joplin in a pissed-off mood and then a slice of boogie woogie that had way too many amphetamines mixed with barbiturates, indecisive as to whether it wants to get up and shake it or just lay there and dream.

However, in Lullaby, which obviously had a swaddling beatnik baby in mind, Lester employs an interestingly staccato set of ascending repeating chords that wouldn't be strangers to unusual composers like Robert Fripp or Christian Vander. In that, I would also credit a masterful Paul Bley presence—not to mention ex-wife Carla—in this guy's out-of-the-box manners. Lightning Man gets even more out of hand, and the listener will either be fascinated or turn to Barry Manilow for protection. This is dangerous stuff, y'all. In terms of imagery, though, there's definitely a literate straddling of boundaries between Herman Melville, Raymond Chandler, and Kurt Vonnegut, even some Norman Mailer. Challenging music but there's not a wasted second in any of it. You'll come to the far end of the 52 minutes feeling like you just went ten rounds with the champ, bruised and panting…but wondering when you can get a rematch.

Review in Top 21

October 31, 2013 by John Shelton Ivany

"story time" is the latest album by jazzmaster, pianist billy lester. it's like he's playing with his heart into the mic with pure honesty. lester is authentic as a person, as a musician, with all the doubt, mystery and wonder at being alive.

Review in Jazz Times

September 20, 2013 by Travis Rogers

A smoking addition to the great legacy of solo piano

The May, 2013 release of Billy Lester’s “Storytime” was a welcome addition to the great corpus of solo Jazz piano. It is masterful and meticulous, skilled and sonorous, paced and powerful.

The album’s progression is set up as a bedtime narrative, a stream of consciousness narrative. Transitions are intentionally absent and the texture often becomes more dream-like than story-like. The vocabulary and tone, scenery and imagery are thoughtfully established in the opening track entitled “Prologue.”

Immediately following is “Lullaby” which is not as serene as it is hypnotic. The chord progressions are given a delicate touch that manages to soothe despite the packed chords.

“Lightning Man” and “Ode to Bud Powell” are adventurous forays into what Howard Mandel calls “connoisseur Jazz.” Lester takes us on a ride with raw and (in “Ode to Bud Powell”) extravagant approaches. The rapid-fire attack is brilliant.

He can turn in a Jazz nocturne like “Under the Stars” or go for a bit of light-hearted romp in “Dark Streets” or offer the listener something more melodic like “Color Red.” He creates a film noir feel with “Bonanza” in which one expects to see the conjuring of Bogart and Bacall (or Peter Lorre). The left-hand pacing is delightfully dark.

Lester displays another tribute piece in “Sal Mosca,” another ode but this time to his long-time mentor. It is Lester’s recollection of his teacher without being maudlin but instead celebrates Mosca’s approach.

“Encore” is the final payoff of this remarkable album. It is full of vibrancy and touching torment as is the whole album—a late-night reverie of sound.

Review on Rotcodzzaj

July 24, 2013 by Rotcod Zzaj

Billy Lester – STORYTIME: This isn’t exactly “upbeat”, or “super-hip” jazz – but it IS jazz, to be sure – with a story being told. As you listen to the opening of “Prologue“, you may think that it’s just “kerplunk-ity” notes, but as it matures, the tale comes to the fore – you just fill in the blanks (best with headphones on & eyes closed). The too-cool “Lightning Man” starts right off with thunder striking in your ears, & doesn’t let up until a little more than four minutes later. If solo piano is your cup of tea as a listener, you won’t get any better than this 11-tune wonder! My personal favorite was “Bonanza“, probably because of the thick mother-lode of chords on the tune. For listeners totally entranced by solo keyboards, this gets a MOST HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with an “EQ” (energy quotient) rating of 4.97. Get more information about Billy & his music at Billy’s website.

Dedicated to the contemporary jazz expression, he leaves the genre limitations behind in his performances, creating his own, extravagant expression, based on free improvisation, the expression which shall not win him a large public for sure.

Review in Gapplegate Music Review

July 15, 2013 by Grego Applegate Edwards

Sometimes you miss somebody until now for reasons that have nothing to do with the music. Pianist Billy Lester is one...for me anyway. And I have no idea why I have. But I have. Until now and his solo piano CD Storytime (Jujikaan jka001). Here's a cat laying down his own compositions-improvisations in a mode that takes on Sal Mosca and Lennie Tristano as primary influences and goes somewhere very good with them. He has the outside voicings, some of that walking left hand, a bop-inflected horn and chord thing (which Bud had plenty to do with too).

I found myself responding to the creativity that Mr. Lester has out front. This is good! Billy Lester works in a tradition I respect much, and he becomes himself by so doing. You like that tradition, then this is for you!

Review in Jazz Weekly

July 3 2013 by George W. Harris

"...Billy Lester’s got an inquisitive touch to his collection of originals. Each composition comes across like an undulating story, you feel like you’re being taken on some sort of excursion on songs like “Lightning Man,” “Dark Streets” and “Another Dream.” His sense of swing comes from the bop era, as his “Ode to Bud Powell” reveals, but there’s an inquisitive and assertive sense of Monkish dark experimentation as well as revealed on “Lullabye” and “Sal Mosca.” Impressive and extremely well thought out.

Review in Jazz Times

June 8 2013 by Scott Albin

Each year a number of outstanding solo jazz piano CDs are released, and two stand-outs so far in 2013 are Neil Alexander's Darn That Dream: Solo Piano Vol. 1, and Billy Lester's Storytime.... Among Lester's many influences are Lennie Tristano, Tristano disciple (and Lester's teacher) Sal Mosca, Bud Powell, Lester Young, Tatum, James P. Johnson, and Fats Waller. As shown on his trio and quartet sessions, Lester is fond of skillfully reharmonizing or inverting the chords of standards to the point that the original tune is often virtually undetectable. Alexander and Lester take separate paths stylistically on these solo recordings, but the end result is the same-- spirited, compelling, purposeful, and technically accomplished piano jazz.

Lester's CD in turn is launched with "Prologue," and its atonal start leads to bluesy note clusters and sonorous chords, and then some boppish right-hand phrases. Some counterpoint elements, stride rhythms, arresting tumbling runs, walking left-hand bass lines, catchy motifs, and insistent staccato punctuations, all coalesce into a driving and swinging segment that fades to an elegant conclusion. "Lullaby" begins with probing lyricism and a repeating motif, and Lester uses cascading runs and twirling figures to amplify his objective, as it soon becomes apparent that the chord changes of "Body and Soul" have been his guiding light all along. Off-kilter Thelonious Monk flavored runs introduce "Lightning Man," and it also quickly emerges as a "Body and Soul" derived improvisation. This time there's more tension at a quicker tempo, with a diversity of textural and rhythmic devices, all at the service of Lester's sharply focused thematic imagination. "Ode to Bud Powell" features Lester's dense and rapid extended sequences and captures Powell's confident swagger circa 1949 or so, but this 2:29 vignette turns out to be just a heady prelude to a melody never played.

"Dark Streets" has a choppy bop line, a Monkish motif, and then Lester's propulsive, prolonged contrapuntal conversation between hands that is rhythmically buoyant and in restless motion thematically, riffing and winding with logic and gusto. Lester's "Bonanza" (all 11 compositions are his), has a reflective rubato prelude, and gradually unfolds an infectious rhythmic pulse as the pianist inculcates more chords and lengthy delineations into the mix, with lively left-hand bass lines that fit seamlessly into the absorbing flow. "Sal Mosca" is a tribute to Lester's mentor, and the pianist swings heartily through his surging phraseology, prodded by his devilishly enticing left-hand supplementary patterns, and one hears "Yesterdays" as the piece's foundation. Lester closes with "Encore," a pleasantly upbeat mid-tempo number consisting of overlapping voicings, recurring motifs, rich chords, and Lester's characteristically gratifying interplay between hands, yet another example of a fascinating, harmonically attractive sustained and cohesive improv in search of a desired, yet hardly missed, resolving theme.

A letter from Howard Mandel

"Dear Billy,

Story Time is really connoisseur jazz. It shows off your unique, extremely well-informed and very imaginative musical approach, in full swing — as it were, and as it is! — at what seems like an ever higher level of daring and mastery. You open up dimensions of humor, wit, possibility, comfort, relaxation, ache, inquiry, discovery, adventure (not necessarily in that order). I don't know where you're going to go, but follow along, amused to recognize much of the language and some of the references, then you get there, and that was fun — how'd you do it? Through some sort of free-flowing association. Doesn't matter what the song is, the song is you. Cool, Billy, great one, thanks."

—Howard (Howard Mandel, author, educator, president Jazz Journalists Association, 
blogger @

Review in Connoisseur Jazz

"Billy Lester is an accomplished pianist. His technical mastery of his chosen instrument matches that of the major classical pianists today - his fingers can move almost beyond the speed of sound but the sound they produce is deeply personal and sincere and fascinatingly fine.

All the works on this CD are composed by Billy Lester and his title for the collection is fitting: he opens with Prologue that is like a theme and variations but soon gives over into raucous jazz - it is an overture for what is to follow. From there every one of the eleven pieces is a story - 'constructed like a narrative, using as its contextual arc with each track as the content.' There are moments in Lester's music that touch on ideas suggestive of Lester's heroes - Louie Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell to name a few - while at the same time everything this man plays holds the stamp of his own now easily identifiable 'sound'.

Lester's son James Lester writes fondly of his father's gifts: 'This is something special. Because when childhood evaporates into a series of distilled memories, there is nothing sweeter than to be whisked back to a time of innocence and told a story.' And that is precisely what this is excellent CD of music called STORY TIME by Billy Lester is all about. Brilliant work fills the room when you listen and it seems so personal."

-Grady Harp

Review in

"Storytime is an engaging set of solo piano originals, reminiscent in style and substance to classic bebop with thematic winding around standard-based harmonies. What keeps this eleven-track release fresh is Billy Lester's ability to converse between hands, incorporate dissonance and tension, and keep things moving at a delightfully swinging pace."

-John Barron

Review in

BILLY LESTER/Storytime:  "Howard Mandel absolutely flipped out over this session,  and while it’s not without it’s merits, we point our arrow here at a mass audience.  Would the masses dig this left of center, solo jazz piano date? Well, they would if the masses were into Monk and Bud Powell.  If someone were to do a biopic about Monk or Powell, they would be a fool not to get Lester to do the score, but if you’re looking for something more along the lines of cocktail jazz, this cat and his skills are going to sail right past you."

Chris Spector, Editor and Publisher,

Review in Elite Syncopations Jazz Radio Show

Those that studied with Sal (Mosca) and Lennie (Tristano) seem always elicit one ineluctable characteristic and that is to go deep -- with Billy Lester I find I can only go one or two tunes at a sitting before the gravitas is swirling and I need stop and rearrange my molecules!

-- Mark Weber - The Elite Syncopations Jazz Radio Show KUNM Albuquerque