Playing catch-up — again. Seems somewhere along the line musicians said “Enough!” with regards to the pandemic.
While still adhering to safety guidelines, they have, in increasing numbers, entered the studio to make records. It is a nice feeling to crack open a stack of varied titles — some featuring familiar faces, others not so much. Here’s but a quartet of what’s recently arrived.
Steve Slagle, “Nascentia” (Panorama) Veteran Steve Slagle is primarily an alto saxophonist, and a good one at that. He plays flute on the late Harold Mabern’s medium-tempo “I Remember Britt,” one of 10 cuts here — but it’s his alto work that you can’t help but notice. He’s assembled an A+ team on “Nascentia,” subtitled “Birth.”
This is the kind of ensemble you wish you could go out and hear tonight. There’s an omnipresent, incredibly welcoming, straight-ahead but modern soulfulness to this entire session. It's a cohesive, easy-flowing vibe that allows each participant plenty of space to stretch out. The title track and centerpiece is a five-part, 25-minute romp whose opening, “All Up In It,” employs a staccato riff on multiple occasions, quite reminiscent of John Coltrane’s anthem “Giant Steps.”
There’s a pair of short, unaccompanied “interludes” sandwiched between other sections; one features drummer Jason Tiemann and the other showcases bassist Ugonna Okegwo. The core quartet also features Jazz Series friend and pianist Bruce Barth, who simply shines throughout.
Slagle augments the group with a shared front line comprised of trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and trombonist Clark Gayton, both contributing to some of, but not all, the tunes. When they do, they lift the music that much higher — which is saying something. The sextet arrangements are beautifully crafted; when everyone chimes in, Slagle & Co. deliver what feels like an almost large-ensemble sensibility.
Ray Gallon, “Make Your Move” (Cellar) It’s difficult to believe “Make Your Move” marks longtime pianist Ray Gallon’s debut as leader. We’re talking about someone who has worked with a measurable number of luminaries, a list too long to incorporate into this space. Gallon has been a stalwart on the New York jazz scene for decades; if you visit the city, he’s often heard at Arturo’s, an informal but classic Italian restaurant located on Houston Street in Greenwich Village.
Gallon’s a complex and thoughtful player. These are mostly original tunes, and countless passages house surprisingly intricate and nuanced phrases — which works to perfection, as he’s joined by a pair of equally talented, like-minded compadres: bassist David Wong and drummer Kenny Washington.
“Make Your Move” is filled with subtlety, offering some Monk-isms and Latin jazz-isms to go with bebop-infused stylings; he also interprets a couple of classics: Victor Young’s “I Don’t Stand A Ghost of a Chance” and Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays.”
Benito Gonzalez, “Sing To The World” (Rainy Days) “Muscular” comes to mind when delving into pianist Benito Gonzalez’s newest release. Born in Venezuela, the 2005 Great American Piano Competition winner, now in his mid-40s, is a force, someone who frequently draws from the School of Percussive Pianists.
He also possesses range, which allows him to tread lightly amid pieces such as “Father,” a kind of soft-spoken, swingin’ blues where trumpeter Nicholas Payton contributes a comforting solo and “Offering.” “Sing To The World” is anchored by bassist Christian McBride and powerhouse drummers Jeff ‘Tain Watts and Sashin Mashin, who split time on the disc’s 10 cuts.
Greg Skaff, “Polaris” (SMK) Guitarist Greg Skaff, despite his extensive, three-decade-plus resume, is not what you would label a household name. He’s owned a varied career, of late working in configurations that include Hammond B-3 organ. According to Nate Chinen, the liner note contributor here and well-known author, “Polaris” represents Skaff’s first playing with a “standard trio of guitar, bass and drums.”
The other two parties involved are a pair of National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters: bassist Ron Carter (class of 1998) and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, who will be feted next month. So we’re talking all-around high-quality here.
Among the 11 selections on this entry, Skaff offers some standards, including “Old Devil Moon” and “Ill Wind” and a pair of somewhat lesser-known Ellingtonia — at least in my mind — “Angelica” and “Lady of the Lavender Mist.”
There’s both a duo and trio reading of Carter’s “Little Waltz,” “Caminando,” another Carter-composed piece, and a couple of originals, “Mr. R.C.” — which one would assume references said bassist — and the title track.
What’s most striking about “Polaris” is the open feeling it presents. Skaff, Carter and Heath use a kind of continual spaciousness, a lot of silence and varied dynamics as the session’s backdrop; together, these qualities contribute to an all-encompassing but tasteful softness and warmth.
Jon W. Poses is executive director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.