Thursday, July 21, 2022

Hear What I've Been Listening To (7/21)

Photo: Adrien Tillman
Saxophonist (alto and soprano) and composer Caleb Wheeler Curtis has turned a lot of musical minds and ear over the past seven years since the collective quartet Walking Distance released its debut album, "Neighborhood",  in January of 2015. Since then, the Ann Arbor, MI, native has worked and recorded with pianist Orrin Evans (small group as well as The Captain Black Big Band, with bassist Noah Garabedian and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza in the collective trio Ember, with trumpeter Josh Lawrence, with pianist Jason Moran, drummer Lennie White, and a slew of others. He's issued six albums as a leader or co-leader on a variety including SunnySide Records, Outside In Music, and pianist Evans' Imani Records.

Album # 7, "Heatmap", is also on Imani. The 10-song program finds the saxophonist/composer once again in the company of pianist Evans plus the rhythm section of bassist Eric Revis and drummer Gerald Cleaver.  What one hears is a splendid cross-section of contemporary music; take the rumbling title track which opens with a long dissertation from the pianist that takes its time to develop while the bass and drums build the fluid foundation beneath him.  Curtis enters over halfway through the piece, the urgency of his alto sax showing traces of Ornette Coleman and Henry Threadgill. The leader's fire ignites the rhythm section until the formal close of the piece. "Splinters" is a funky piece that must takes its name from the chopped-up Curtis uses to create the theme. Cleaver booms up from below pushing the saxophonist to a fiery climax.  Evans enters a bit circumspect but soon, aided by the active bass and drums builds an impressive statement.

Photo: Liz Brauer
There a slew of stand-out tracks. The rip-roaring "C(o)urses" opens the album with a red-hot soprano sax solo over rampaging drums, ferocious bass lines, and the pianist "cat-and-mouse" piano lines.  "Tossed Aside" opens as a quiet ballad with impassioned saxophone work. Revis's thick yet melodic bass lines along with gentle piano chords and phrasing over Cleaver's delightful traps playing give the music a feel of mid-1960s New York City r'n'b (to these ears, the music of The Drifters and Ben E. King).  "Limestone" opens quietly as if the music was tiptoeing into existence.  Revis rises up to create a wonderfully melodic solo which gives way to an alto sax solo reaches to the heights without losing the gentleness of its surroundings. Listen to "Trembling" below and its subtle mix of exciting rhythms, the low rumbling of the piano, the fervency in Curtis's lines that plead for release, and the energetic thrum of the bass. Listen deeply.

"Heatmap" closes with the appropriately-named "Whisperchant"––one of the most impressive aspects of this music is how this quartet can sizzle, explode, whisper, and float without ever sounding forced or unnatural. Caleb Wheeler Curtis composed this music focussing on both the musical and emotional content with both being equal. But you must sit down and listen; this is not background music, this is life!

For more information, go to  To hear more of and purchase the album, go to

Hear Curtis and the band "Trembling": 

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