Jazz has certainly won its hard-earned battle for respectability, but along the way, much of its soulfulness got lost. Even in my hometown of New York, where bebop and free jazz were born, the music today is more the sound of conservatory training than a reflection of what used to be called “the jazz life.” That road, which so many generations of musicians traveled, was tough, but it gave them a lot to express.

How, then, does one explain Frank Chastenier, the German pianist (born in 1966) who plays jazz with an emotional depth that one rarely anymore? It didn’t come from a life of turmoil. Since 1991, Frank has enjoyed a full-time job with Köln’s WDR Big Band. He’s married, he says, to “the greatest woman in the world”; they live with their teenage daughter in the village of Grevenbroich, NRW, where Frank grew up.

One wouldn’t expect this seemingly contented man to be drawn to songs of such yearning and despair, and to play them with the utmost vulnerability. But as Frank explains, “I love melodies, and I’m a melancholy guy.” Like Miles Davis, Blossom Dearie, and Shirley Horn, he is also a minimalist; his silences speak as strongly as anything he plays. “It’s less-is-more with Frank, so every note counts,” says Nan Schwartz, the American arranger whose strings have backed him on several projects. Adds Frank: “Usually I sing along with my lines and melodies while playing. And when you sing you have to breath. That’s one reason I just play the notes I feel inside, and not a lot of notes or scales just because my fingers can play them. If the audience feels touched by my sound, this is the biggest musical thrill I can get.”

For years, Frank had never pushed for a solo CD; he’s always been happier outside the spotlight. But in 2004, Verve released his debut album,
For You, co-produced by Till Brönner, his friend since both of them were teenagers. Jazzthetic magazine called that CD “probably the most important German jazz album in the last ten years.” Its trancelike mood continues on Songs I’ve Always Loved, Frank’s second Verve release. Another co-production of Till Brönner, it teams him (as did For You) with his fellow members of the WDR rhythm section, bassist John Goldsby and drummer Hans Dekker. Nan Schwartz and Wieland Reissmann, Frank’s former piano student, provide strings.

The songs reveal Frank’s uncommonly refined and wide-ranging taste; they include operetta tunes, trademarks of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf, American standards, and Frank’s tender miniature, “Little Prelude.” Even his forays into commercial pop are revelatory. On
For You, Frank transformed “Mensch,” Herbert Gronemeyer’s giant hit of 2002, into a slow, sensual reverie. He does something similar on the new CD with “Mornin’,” Al Jarreau’s 1983 R&B smash. “It was originally a happy love song with happy rhythms,” says Frank, “and I show its sentimental side.”

He may be attracted to sadness, but Frank never had to agonize to find his path. At an early age, he began playing the Hammond B3 organ and exploring his father’s vast and varied record collection. When he was thirteen he joined the Youth Jazz Orchestra of NRW; there he met Till Brönner. Later Frank became a member of the German Youth Jazz Orchestra (“Bujazzo”), led by Peter Herbolzheimer. Then he began his years with the WDR.

Nothing like this ensemble exists in the U.S.; its musicians work together Monday through Friday on a constantly changing array of projects. “It can happen that within two months I have worked with Gary Burton, Mike Stern, Maceo Parker, Patti Austin, and a German pop star, with their totally different styles of music,” Frank says. The job enables him to show off his other musical sides, notably his ability to swing hard on the Hammond B3. (Proof appears on “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” a track on
Roots and Grooves, a collaboration between James Brown’s former alto player, Maceo Parker, and the WDR.) But much of the time, Frank is an oasis of calm inside that energetic orchestra.

He calls
Songs I’ve Always Loved “the soundtrack of my life,” because of all the sentimental connections he has with its tunes. “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt” from Der blaue Engel – a song known outside Germany as “Falling in Love Again” – reminds him “of the great German composers we had like Friedrich Hollaender and Kurt Weill, the great writers like Kurt Tucholsky, Thomas and Heinrich Mann and Erich Kästner, before the Nazis disturbed our culture. Sometimes I wish I could live a few days back in twentieth-century Berlin, just to feel and smell that time.” His surprising harmonies add unrest to a song about dreamy surrender. John Goldsby and Hans Dekker enhance the sense of mystery. “My trio with John and Hans is one of the luckiest things in my life,” he says, “because we seem to breath together all the time.”

“Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (Yours Is My Heart Alone) is from Franz Lehar’s operetta
Das Land des Lächelns, which Frank watched on Sunday-afternoon TV as a child. Nan Schwartz’s silky dusting of strings is so subtle, its effects are felt more than heard. “Frank leaves a lot of space,” says Nan. “That doesn’t mean you have to fill it all, but there’s a lot of room to paint your colors.” They met a few years back, when both of them worked on Mark Murphy’s Verve CDs, Once to Every Heart and Love Is What Stays. “The recordings I did with Mark belong to the greatest moments of my life,” says Frank. “I wish I could play the piano the way he sings!”

From another heartrending balladeer, Jacques Brel, comes “Ne me quitte pas,” a song that moves Frank deeply. His chilling performance makes that clear. Confronting the song’s pained desperation, he responds with quiet intensity, not melodrama. Whether he wants it or not, recordings such as this one make it likely that Frank will be getting a lot more attention in the years to come.