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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Sax trio - Mainstream

Once in a while I come across mainstream jazz albums which are very close to the musicality and freedom of spirit I like so much in free jazz, and these albums are often by small ensembles, such as trios or duos. Here are four of them, all highly recommended.

Jeff Johnson - Near Earth (Origin, 2004)

This album is as soft, intimate, propulsing, creative and cool as you can imagine them. Jeff Johnson is a great and very sensitive bass player, Hans Teuber has great power and tonal variation in his sax, even in the softer moments and Tad Britton accentuates perfectly. Bluesy, boppy - a great album.

Lenny Popkin (Lifeline Records, 2000)

This album is of the same tonality, even a little more cool jazz than the previous one, with Lenny Popkin on sax, his wife Carol Tristano (yes, Lennie Tristano's daughter) on drums and the great Eddy Gomez on bass. Lenny Popkin plays as if he whispers in his sax, as if he is afraid to be heard, with bass and drum offering sparse yet functional support. His sax playing goes back to Lennie Tristano's legacy, reminiscent of Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz, bringing slow but thorough improvizations on the given theme. Even the uptempo pieces give you the impression that these guys are afraid to create volume. As I'm not a cool jazz afficionado, this is quite an interesting new angle.

Branford Marsalis - Trio Jeepy (Columbia, 1988)

This album is the trio's hommage to the masters : Ellington, Strayhorn, Carmichael, Rollins and even Ornette Coleman. Branford Marsalis, Jeff Tain Watts and Milt Hinton are in absolute top form and they are having so much fun playing these pieces, that you can hear the music smile. All three demonstrate their respective instrumental skills, exploring tonal ranges within the boundaries of what is allowed in mainstream jazz, but the interplay and the music receive the main focus. The directness of the album is illustrated by keeping in the mistakes and the vocal exchanges between the players in the mix. Best pieces are "The Nearness Of You" and "Peace".

Steve Swallow - Damaged In Transit (EMC Records, 2001)

After three rather laidback CDs, here is one with an entirely different approach. A little more intense, a little more uptempo, with Swallow's bass often the melodic instrument or in unisono with Chris Potter, supported by Adam Nussbaum. If you like masterful interplay and creative intensity, look no further, this is your album. All pieces are called "Item", and "Item 1" starts immediately with a strong uptempo rollercoaster, "Item 2" brings the kind of song we know from his collaboration with Carla Bley on "Songs With Legs". Swallow's 5-string electric bass allows him to play a lead soloing role totally different than with an upright bass, as in "Item 6". His compositions are more in the tradition of Monk, crafty pieces with unexpected angles, blues-inflections and lots of chordal spielerei. Highlights are "Item 6" and "Item 8/Item9" on which the interplay is to tight that it's hardly believable. This is a totally under-evaluated and under-exposed live album. Anyone with the least tiniest interest in jazz should go and get it.