Released on Chiaroscuro Records in 1996
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It was my good fortune to attend all of Costa's Mercer sessions, recorded in Pittsburgh during 1994 and 1995. Costa played effortlessly, and was relaxed throughout them all, so much so I didn't realize he had begun work on this project. During my week-long visit with the Costas in 1994, one afternoon Johnny said informally, "We'll go to the studio tomorrow. It'll give us something to do." I vividly recall that first session: Costa played 10 tunes so superbly I suggested he title this disc "Johnny Costa Plays Johnny Mercer: Take One."
I have listened to an audiocassette of this session many times, which began with "Days of Wine and Roses" and ended with "Dream." He recorded a tune, listened to its playback and then moved on to another song. Before each take began, the voice of the recording engineer is heard uttering the name of a tune followed by the words take one. This CD could have been comprised entirely of music he recorded during that first session, more than 50 minutes of music.
Additional recordings of a few tunes Costa believed he could play better were completed during subsequent sessions. (Johnny Costa is a perfectionist at heart.) But it is difficult to say in most cases whether any particular second take surpassed the original. Overall, Costa recorded more than two hours of Mercer tunes during the four sessions. (Let's hope Chiaroscuro eventually releases a second Costa playing Mercer CD.)
The selections included on this release represent different creative moments. I am always struck by Costa's inventiveness, how different one arrangement differs from another, particularly when he records a tune more than one time. Perhaps this should not surprise us: Costa almost always performs the tunes of America 's greatest composers of popular music, songs recorded many times by many instrumentalists and singers. To Costa, recording pop standards means playing old tunes new ways; it is his musical signature. Johnny Mercer also possessed a superabundance of creativity, often writing several different lyrics for the same melody.
One additional memory related to the recording sessions was watching Costa at his piano at home exploring musical ideas, ones that wouldn't wait for a studio date. Sometimes the following day we discussed a particular arrangement of a particular tune he played the night before, although not always remembering its name. Not that it mattered: Costa never tried to duplicate an arrangement. He knew that for him the best take is the first one, that it is futile to try to reconstruct a spontaneous moment, analogous to a gifted orator trying to present the same heartfelt speech a second time using the same words. The second effort almost always falls short.
It is not surprising that Johnny Costa has been called "the Mozart of jazz piano." When you hear him play the selections from the Mercer songbook included on this CD, you will know why trombonist Bill Watrous says of Johnny Costa, "He's the best musician on any instrument I know of," and you will understand why pianist Paul Smith says, "Johnny Costa has all the technical skills." If you listen carefully, you will likely share the magic that Henry Mancini felt when he first heard the amazing Johnny Costa playing Johnny Mercer.