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The crystal jazz of Ellis Larkins

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IT is a custom among journalists to justify their preoccupation of the moment by hooking it to an anniversary - then foisting the subject on the reader with the argument of timeliness. Very well. It is exactly 10 years since the pianist Ellis Larkins made an album in Paris called ``A Smooth One'' for the Classic Jazz label. Furthermore, it is exactly 15 years since he cut an album of duets with the cornetist Ruby Braff for Chiaroscuro Records in New York - ``Grand Reunion'' was the title.

Does this satisfy the required news peg?

Of course if the man had just won a poll as Best Jazz Pianist of the Year - or even Best-Dressed Jazz Pianist of the Year - the cry would go up: ``Stop the presses!''

What nonsense! The good and sufficient reason to write about Mr. Larkins now, or at any time, is that he happens to be a superbly gifted musician, a fact that in the best of all worlds would command a headline now and then, year in, year out.

In addition - if you need an ``in addition'' - he belongs to a neglected field of music. The attention that jazz receives compared with rock is, alas, in proportion to the difference in volume of sound, it seems. Surely it is one of the duties of a journalist to unplug all those high-decibel rock guitars and redress the balance.

Moreover, in his neglected field, Larkins is not exactly a household name, perhaps because he constitutes as subtle a presence among jazz musicians as a musician does among heavy-metal rockers. Classically trained at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, and later at the Juilliard School, he looks like a scholar at the keyboard - bespectacled, impeccably but soberly dressed, every inch not a showman.

The appearance is far from misleading. Larkins carries jazz to the brink of overrefinement. He feathers the keyboard as if it were a well-tempered clavier, striking the hammers with a gentle precision. The notes in his runs scatter like dazzling chips of crystal. His elegant style is made for whispering brushes and tinkling cymbals and bass strings that go quietly plonk! in the night. A listener's first impression may be of a control too absolute, too immaculate to be jazz.

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