Thursday, November 23, 2023

Thanksgiving Day 2024; Two Alto sax-Piano duos + One Quartet


Been absent from this blog for two months but not for a lack of great new albums but more so for being much too busy. Teaching coillege freshmen as I do is more fun than work; when you add to that the stresses of Middle East War and the horrors perpetrated in the name of freedom, music becomes a much-needed escape but writing does not seem to be enough.

Still, it's Thanksgiving Day in the United States, a day for remembering how lucky many of us are. We have a roof over our heads, food to eat, time to read, the ability to walk most streets without fear, heat in our domiciles, lights in our living areas, and, for some, vehicles to take us out into the country.  Today is a good day to get away from the bluster of candidates, especially who treat democracy as a toy to throw in the trash when it displeases, people who flaunt their wealth, shoot off their mouth, point fingers, and make promises to sweep personal freedoms under a big rug.  

Tomorrow, the news will still be bad, the bluster will return yet we have the power to make the world less of a scary place by celebrating and protecting our freedoms, by staring hate in the eyes until it blinks and slinks away. Set an example of doing good and maybe, just maybe others will join you. No matter their religion, gender, political persuasion, we should all understand compassion and how to practice compassionate caring.  Can't hurt to try––the music is always there to fall back onto.

Photo: Jimmy Katz
I've spent a lot of time recently falling back on the music of two saxophonists, Miguel Zenón and Andrew Rathbun. In the case of the former, he has two new duo albums, one with long-time Quartet member pianist Luis Perdomo (pictured left) and the other with friend and duo pianist Dan Tepfer (pictured below).   Perdomo came to the United States from his native Venezuela in 1993 and by the end of that decade, was playing in groups led by Ravi Coltrane and soon became as founding member of Zenón's Quartet.  The pianist and saxophonist both have a love for the folkloric and popular of their home countries (Zenón is from Puerto Rico), both have a love for melody as well as rhythmical variations, and both are brilliant improvisers.  The music created and arranged for the Quartet has travelled a wide swath of territory over the course of 10 albums, winning numerous awards and lavish praise from critics and reviewers around the world.

Six months into the Pandemic, the duo went into the Jazz Gallery in New York City and recorded a program of songs from the Bolero era, a musical style that began in Cuba in the 1890s and, during the 20th Century, spread throughout the Caribbean and Latin America.  Upon its January 2021 release, "El Arte Del Bolero" (Miel Music) was celebrated not only for its musicality but for its gentle persuasions and splendid playing.  Three years later, the duo reconvened in a recording studio with the expression "to play songs we know and love" (Zenón). "El Arte Del Bolero; Volume 2" expands upon its predecessor by expanding its repertoire with songs from Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela.  The seven-song program is a true delight, especially when the duo moves beyond the melody to create fascinating solos. Listen below to "Paula C.", to how how Zenón caresses the melody as Perdomo creates a quiet symphony beneath him.  As the alto saxophonist dances into solo, the pianist is so playful, whimsical at times, beneath the flowing sax but never losing the pulse.  "En La Soledad" (from the fertile mind of Puerto Rican composer Tito Rodriguez: 1923-73) may remind some John Coltrane's "Central Park West" especially due to the rubato feel.  It's a lovely ballad that kisses one's heart.

The album closes with "Silencio"; composed by legendary Puerto Rican songwriter Rafael Hernández (1892-1965), the rapid-fire music belies song title and flows forward on the delightful alto solo atop the dancing piano lines. When Perdomo steps out, you can hear a touch of the New Orleans "Spanish Tinge", especially in his delightful left hand.   

"El Arte Del Bolero" is a joy from start to finish. The duo of Miguel Zenón and Luis Perdomo reminds us once again of the great music created in the Caribbean and Latin America; they do so with style, grace, and love!

For more information and to purchase the recording, go to

Hear the duo play Rubén Blades' "Paula C.":

While the duo of Miguel Zenón and Dan Tepfer has not played together as long as the one reviewed above, these two musicians have improvised numerous times over the past decade-plus. Over two nights in June 2018, they got together at the Yamaha Artists Services in New York City and laid the tracks that make up their first album together. "Internal Melodies" (Main Door Music/self-released) combines the duo's love for spontaneous composition, pieces each composed for the occasion as well as a duo interpretation of "Fanfares" by György Ligeti and a sparkling take of "317 E 32nd St." by Lennie Tristano.

Tepfer is one of the more adventurous pianists of the 21st Century diving into the worlds of classical music, electronic music, and computer music. He's also  a great jazz pianist and, like Zenón, eschews labels. Together, they push each other to create music that is both mentally satisfying but also moves with grace and occasional rhythmic excitement.  The 12-song program opens with the short and totally improvised "Soundsheets" before they embark on the pianist's "The Thing and its Opposite"––after a particularly angular composed melody that the alto saxophonist reads with grace, Tepfer moves into a more ethereal mode. He steps aside and Zenón dances forward alone, phrases building on top of each other without losing sight of the original melody. They return together to the opening melody yet the music feels somewhat lighter. The pianist also composed the title track. The melody has a lightness to it, especially in how Zenón plays through it. Tepfer picks up on that with a solo that hints at Beethoven in how it unfolds gently, steadily building the intensity without overwhelming the mood.

Listen below to the saxophonist's "La Izquerida Latina Americana", to how Tepfer creates a martial rhythm with his left hand before Zenón introduces the melody.  There is a seriocomic feel to the music without falling too hard into either camp.  Zenón's "Centro de Gravedad" is a gentle ballad with a lilting melody line underscored by a mix of powerful chords and gentle piano trills. Tepfer's solo has a flamenco feel, his articulated notes giving the music a sense of drama.  The saxophonist also brought "La Libertad" to the duo; it, too, is a handsome ballad and both musicians create heartfelt solos. 

The album closes with the Tristano classic plus another spontaneous piece "Freedrum".  The former is a delightful romp, the duo bringing out the dancing quality of the rhythm and melody.  The final track combines Tepfer's piano "percussion" with Zenón's playful melody for a short but spirited finish to a wide-ranging program. "Internal Melodies" goes in many directions over the course of an hour but Dan Tepfer and Miguel Zenón never lose their way.  Their musical conversations can be serious or light-hearted; all told, this music is generous in spirit and a delight to listen to!

For more information and to purchase, go to

Hear the duo play Zenón's "La Izquerida Latina Americana":

Although alto saxophonist and composer Andrew Rathbun has been recording and touring since the late 1990s, he's still gets recognized a "Rising Star" in recent Downbeat Critics Polls. That's a nice honor but he has created music that needs to be heard by more people. The Toronto, Ontario, Canada native has recorded impressive music for labels such as Fresh Sounds New Talent Records, Origin, Centaur, and SteepleChase.  Along the way, he has collaborated with pianists Ran Blake, Jeremy Siskind, and Gary Versace, flugelhornist Kenny Wheeler, drummers Billy Hart, Michael Sarin, Bill Stewart, and Jeff Hirshfield, among others.  

What stands out for this listener is that, since his earliest recordings, Andrew Rathbun has been an excellent composer. He certainly can improvise as impressively as his contemporaries but telling a story with his music is just as important. For his latest SteepleChase recording, "Speed of Time", he's joined by Gary Versace (piano), John Hébert (bass), and Tom Rainey (drums).  While the majority of eight-song program was composed during the Pandemic, this music is written with these musicians in mind, as a group project.  The title track kicks off the album––it's got a funky rhythm, a well-drawn melody, and strong solos from the leader and the pianist.  Rathbun quickly dances away from the melody, creating a playful interaction with the rhythm section pushing up the intensity until Versace takes over building his far-ranging solo off Rainey's herky-jerky rhythms. 

Photo: Domenic Gladstone
The leader plays both tenor and soprano saxophones for the insistent up-tempo jaunt that is "Widen the Doorway".  Versace's solo, at the onset, keeps turning back on itself but soon bounces forward atop the insistent work of Hébert and Rainey. The leader's tenor solo opens unaccompanied and then he jumps upon the rhythm section. More reed overdubs on "Still a Thing"; this time, the soprano leads the way on the melody (although the solo is again on tenor) with the rhythm section creating quite a funky rhythm.  

The soprano is featured on the ballad "Wandering"––in the liner notes, Rathbun pays tribute to the late Wayne Shorter, particularly the "human cry" that the great musician often employed in his playing. There's a sense of urgency in the rhythm section but the deliberate pace never wavers. Excellent solos from pianist and bassist precede the leader's spotlight where Rathbun shows but never overdoes the Shorter influence.  More soprano can be heard on "Velocity Unknown", a fascinating piece in an odd time signature (9/4). Rainey's delicate cymbal dance decorates behind the opening bass solo. Rathbun enters two minutes with his own delicate sound. Every time you think the music will erupt, the quartet gathers themselves and continue their gentle journey forward. The power in this piece comes from Rathbun's powerful solo as well as Versace's impressive improvisation.

"Speed of Time" closes with "Tooth and Nail", an insistent work powered by the active drumming. The piece opens with short exposition from Rainey joined quickly by the tenor sax.  After the quartet push their way through that long introduction, the music jumps forward with the drums and bass stoking the fire for the impressive tenor and piano spots.  This particular track sounds even better at a higher volume, the drums shaking the speakers.

Andrew Rathbun keeps "rising", keeps getting better as a composer and musician––this album is yet another fine example of his musicality and creativity.

For more information, go to

Here's the title track:

No comments:

Post a Comment