Thursday, February 20, 2020

Whirlwind of Saxophone Sounds

Photo: Joao Gonzalez
Alto saxophonist Will Vinson, born in London, England, has been a resident of New York City for over two decades.  He's worked or still is working with groups led by pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, drummer Ari Hoenig, saxophonist Miguel Zenón, and many others.  He's a founding member of the cooperative trio OWL (with bassist Orlando Le Fleming and guitarist Lage Lund) plus has issued five albums as a leader on various labels including Criss Cross Records and Smalls Live.  For "441", his debut on Whirlwind Recordings, Vinson chose to record with four different pianists – Sullivan Fortner, Tiger Hamasyan, Gerald Clayton, Fred Hersch, and the afore-mentioned Rubalcaba – and five different rhythm sections – bassists Matt Brewer, Matt Penman, Rick Rosato, and Larry Grenadier paired with (in order) drummers Obed Calvaire, Billy Hart, Jochen Rueckert, Clarence Penn, and Eric Harland (Brewer also plays with Penn). 

The results are a fascinating blend of styles, ideas, and interactions. 11 tracks, nearly 77 minutes of music, with originals mixed with one standard ("Love Letters" from Edward Heyman and Victor Young) plus songs from Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk, Bryn Roberts, and John Lewis. Each pairing opens with a saxophone and piano duet with the following track featuring bass and drums. Fortner is the only pianist with three tracks, the opening two and the delightful duet with Vinson on Lewis's "Milestones" the album closer.  The saxophonist's "Boogaloo" opens the album; it's a sweet blues that rolls along on the full piano chords and Vinson's lithe alto lines.  Brewer and Calvaire, now partners in the current edition of the SF Jazz Collective, have a delightful time pushing and pulling at the rhythms of "Love Letters" while the saxophonist and pianist chase variations of the melody lines throughout.

Photo: Jimmy Katz
There's nary a weak track in the program. Each pianist brings his style and strengths to the music.  Hamasyan is featured on Vinson's "Banal Street" and Jarrett's "Oasis."  The former rolls along pleasingly with both musicians enjoying presenting the melody and then Hoth taking sweet solos.  The quartet captures the European Quartet characteristics of "Oasis" with Vinson even channeling Jan Garbarek's tart alto tone. Matt Penman and Billy Hart sparkle in support.  Clayton and Vinson pair up on two originals, the blues-soaked ballad "I Am James Bond" (powerful solos from both) and another slower original, "Cherry Time."  Also a blues, the ballad gets a strong push from Penn and Brewer who really lock in under the solos, paying close attention to shifts in intensity and lightness.  No surprise that Hersch brings a Monk tune to the party; he and Vinson dance their way through "Work", the subtle blend of richness and minimalism in the pianist's approach meshes well with the alto's jaunty solo.  Vinson turns to soprano sax on Robert's handsome ballad "KW." Composed with Kenny Wheeler in mind, there's plenty of space in the opening sax-piano duo that is enhanced by the addition of bassist Rosato and the splendid brush work of Reuckert.  Rubalcaba caresses the melody of Vinson's "The Way To You" which the saxophonist literally sings through his horn.  They then share the album's longest track (10:18) with Grenadier and Harland – "That Happened" is quite a happening with the pianist and drummer in sync on the rhythms, fine solos from all four, and a breezy quality that builds to an intensity that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Lots and lots of music on "441", an album that invites one in and compels you to stay all the way through.  Will Vinson must have had a ball mixing and matching the five pianists with the material as well as the rhythm sections.  They all inspire his playing and, in turn, are inspired by his adventurousness and desire to have fun while telling these 11 stories.  Take your time and let the music soak in – it's well worth the effort.

For more information, go to

For purchasing information and to read more about the album, go to

Here's the opening track featuring pianist Sullivan Fortner:

Slovenian-born and now New York City-based saxophonist (tenor and soprano plus bass clarinet) Jure Pukl is back with his third album for Whirlwind.   "Broken Circles" finds Pukl in the company of a quartet of "young lions" including bassist Matt Brewer, guitarist Charles Altura, and especially vibraphonist Joel Ross (who is on a slew of recordings issued in the past four months), plus drummer Kweku Sumbry (The latter two can be heard on the powerful new Whirlwind release from bassist Harish Rhaghavan - read my review here).

Pukl created this program with this group in mind; the vast majority of the 11 tracks (plus the radio edit of "Separation") are originals with the one exception. "Gloomy Sunday" was composed in 1932 bu Hungarian composer Rezső Seress with the original lyrics plus the English translation linked to multiple suicides. The composer's story is fascinating yet this version is pushed forward by Sumbry's active drums.  The melody is shared by the bass clarinet and vibes with guitar counterpoint.  As an immigrant to the United States, Pukl composes songs that deal with broken families but also pieces that reflect life in a freer environment.  An example of the former is "Separation", a somber ballad in which the tenor sax, guitar, and vibes each have a voice as does Brewer with a fine solo and the drummer taking the piece to its conclusion.

Photo: Aljosa Videtic
The center of the program is ballad-heavy. After the track above, "Compassion" opens with a kalimba melody before dropping into a slow, moody, ballad. Pukl's soprano plays the melody aided by quiet counterpoint from Ross and Brewer.  "The afore-mentioned "Gloomy Sunday" is several tracks later followed by "Empty Words."  There's a sparse quality to the tracking, at times, the rhythm stops. But, listen to how the musicians respond to the melody and to each other, not allowing excess emotion overtake the music.  Near to the end of the program, "Kids" opens with Pukl's child offering a wordless vocal duo with Dad's tenor sax before the band enters with a sweet ballad. Altura's fine solo is a highlight but pay attention to what Brewer and Sumbry are creating beneath the guitar.

There's plenty of high-powered materials as well.  The album kicks off with "Sustained Optimism", with the tenor sax and vibes playing the speedy melody while the drummer kicks everyone Ito gear.  The title track follows; the song has quite a kick tumbling out of the rhythm section and the front line of tenor, vibes and guitar all take advantage to create strong solos. ""Triumph of Society" is also a very optimistic piece, tumbling forward with a delightful flow.  The final track (before the extra radio edit) is the delightful "Sky Is The Limit" – Pukl's soprano sax shares the melody with guitar and then jumps into his solo, his melodic phrases high up in the soprano's range caught up in the powerful rhythmic flow below him.

Listening to "Broken Circles", one hears a quintet of musicians working and playing to create messages that resonate. Jure Pukl has been an impressive player since first coming to critical attention in the early years of the previous decade.  His writing keeps on maturing as does his playing. He's recorded and/or worked with musicians such as pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Damion Reid, the Vienna Sax Quartet, saxophonist Branford Marsalis, and his wife, saxophonist Melissa Aldana.  This current quintet deserves to be heard in person as each person brings great musical knowledge to the project.  Pay attention!

For more information, go to

Here's the first track on the album:

Been over two decades since saxophonist and NEA Jazz master Dave Liebman began his musical exploration and interpretation of the four Natural Elements. Starting in 1997 with "Water" (featuring Pat Metheny, Billy Hart, and Cecil McBee), then moving on to "Air" (a 2006 duo with computer whiz Walter Quintus), and then 2016's "Fire" (with Kenny Werner, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette.  Liebman brings the cycle to a close with "Earth" (Whaling City Sounds), a 14-piece suite that features his touring and recording group Expansions. The leader brings his signature soprano saxophone plus wooden recorder; the group consists of Matt Vashlishan (Wind synth, reeds), Bobby Avey (piano, keyboards), Alex Ritz (drums), and longtime associate Tony Marino (electric bass).

Liebman constructed this band to be an electro-acoustic outfit and no one exemplifies that more than Vashlishan. having seen the group in concert, it's impressive how he blends the wind synth in the more traditional sounds of piano, bass, and drums.  One can hear that in all its glory on "Volcano/Avalanche" where his instrument creates the former and Liebman's darting soprano lines the other.  Marino's bass and Ritz's drums keep the music from falling apart as well as add to the energy needed to tell the story.  "The Sahara" is introduced by the percussion/ wooden flute "Interlude", complete with wind sounds from the synth and bass. The evocative soprano sax lead then blends with the wind synth to push the song into a different mood. Avey's electric piano solo over the powerful drum playing stands out.

Photo: N Hayashi
There are amazing moments throughout.  The short "Interludes" not only serve as solo spotlights (in the instances above and below, an augmented duo) but also introduce the following track. Avey's piano spot may remind some of a waterfall or a gentle rain outside the window while Vashlishan's seems other-worldly but not unlike  the synth work of the late Joe Zawinul.  Ritz's spot is conversational while Marino plays a chordal riff with the drummer keeping time.  Liebman's soprano solo "Interlude" is evocative of standing on a ridge and leads into "Grand Canyon/ Mt. Everest", a musical appreciation of these natural wonders with each voice stepping forward and then back into the ensemble in a slow procession that compels the listener to sit and let the music unfold, not to rush to move forward but take in the beauty of creation.

Photo: Attila Kleb
The music moves back from its close examination of the natural wonders of "Earth" to its place in the greater Cosmos.  The album closes with "Galaxy", a raucous, funk-driven piece that has the feel of the music Miles Davis created for the "On The Corner".  Marino and Ritz really drive this piece with Avey's chattering keys, Vashlishan's squealing wind synth, and Liebman's  fiery soprano lines fluttering over the top of it.  Midway through the piece, Avey steps out with just Ritz supplying the pulse before Marino reenters and pushes them harder.  The ends then come in and help to take the piece into a short restatement of "Earth Theme", bringing the project back to a close but also serving as an invitation to reenter this music's rich atmosphere.

Photo: N. Hayashi
The pictures that Dave Liebman Expansions creates on "Earth" come into clearer focus each time you listen.  This is music that connects you to the natural world in unexpected ways, asking one to pay closer attention to the majesty of what is all around you, impelling you to go outside away from the daily hustle if only for a short walk in the woods or by a river or near a pond or up to a mountain top.

For more information, go to Dave Liebman Expansions is appearing at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme CT on 2/22 and then at Dizzy's Club NYC on 2/28-29.  Click on the names for more information.

Here's "Sahara":

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