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JAZZ | Jazz Spotlight

Some Singular Saxophone Sensations

March 12, 2000|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The saxophone has been, almost from the music's earliest years, one of the primary voices of jazz. From Johnny Hodges and Sidney Bechet, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, the instrument has virtually defined jazz for many listeners.

And, in the new millennium, it continues to be heard in an amazing number of styles and settings. Here's a glance at just a few of the many jazz saxophone recordings arriving this month:

World Saxophone Quartet, "Requiem for Julius" (*** 1/2, Justin Time). A tribute to founding member the late Julius Hemphill, "Requiem" takes the quartet back to its ensemble roots after releasing several albums with the accompaniment of African drummers. (Original members Hamiet Bluiett, baritone saxophone; Oliver Lake, alto and soprano saxophones; and David Murray, tenor saxophone, have been joined by multi-instrumentalist John Purcell.) And it's good to hear them in such a pristine acoustic context.

Like the Duke Ellington saxophone section, the World Saxophone Quartet manages to deliver a lush collective sound without sacrificing the tonal characteristics of each player. Among the high points: Bluiett's "Free and Independent Thought," with its drifting and floating sounds; "All Praise" by Purcell, a sweeping melody underscored by a series of long-toned, overlapping harmonic densities--the combination recalling the sort of Billy Strayhorn saxophone writing present in pieces such as "Passion Flower"; and Lake's evocative "Potato Vamp" and "Tone Poem." Occasionally difficult at first encounter, the pieces become more compelling with each rehearing.

Ray Pizzi, "Thumbs Up" (*** 1/2, Quicksilver Records, [818] 707-0300). Saxophonist-flutist and occasional bassoonist (although not on this album) Pizzi has spent much of his time working in the studios as a stellar sideman. But his ingenious abilities as an improviser have always been first-rate and far too little acknowledged. Working here in a live setting with guitarist Mitch Holder and bassist Carol Kaye, Pizzi is in rare form, the passionate intensity of his soloing lightened occasionally by an irrepressible musical wit. Soloing on his own "Gentle Giant," he roves from slap-tongued low notes to vocalized upper-stratosphere phrases, underscoring his utter individuality. At a time when recognizability is not a particularly active factor among jazz saxophonists, he has an almost instantly identifiable sound. Holder mixes his supportive accompaniment with brisk soloing. With no drums, most of the rhythm-keeping responsibilities fall upon Kaye, and she handles the task with the drive that has made her one of the prime, first-call studio bassists for decades.

Gregory Tardy, "The Hidden Light" (***, J Curve Records). Tardy has a lyrical tenor saxophone style, his obvious technical abilities largely balanced by an innate sense of melody. He has also done an effective job of balancing his compositions with occasional soloing from guests Nicholas Payton on trumpet and Antonio Hart on alto saxophone. The album is most effective in the more laid-back numbers--Tardy's own "Beyond the Prison Doors (Venus Flytrap)," the Harry Warren standard "I Only Have Eyes for You" and the gospel spiritual "Take My Hand Precious Lord"--in part because they contain less obtrusive drumming from Eric Harland.

Mark Shim, "Mind Over Matter" (** 1/2, Blue Note). Shim's big, dark, resonant tenor saxophone sound, with its particularly impactful lower register, stamped him as a potentially major artist several years ago when he was performing with the late Betty Carter. And his playing here, especially during the interplay with vibist Stefon Harris (notably so in the surging "Survival Tactics," with Harris on marimba), generally underscores his growing talents. But Shim's composing skills, while promising, are not on the same level with his improvisations. And the net result is that the album's principal appeal, without the benefit of more compelling compositions, is its display of high-spirited, youthful soloing, especially from Shim, Harris and pianist Ed Simon.

As on the Tardy album, however, many of the pieces are distorted by the incessant bashing of Eric Harland. Like too many other young drummers, he seems to view the art of accompaniment as a rationale for a nonstop solo. The result is a tough listen, even for Shim's most supportive fans. And albums such as this trigger the thought that the Blue Note production staff would do well to listen to some of the music that initially gave the company its reputation as the presenter of jazz recordings that were both musically creative and listener-friendly.

Paul Taylor, "Undercover" (**, Peak/N-Coded Music). Let's grant the fact that Taylor, who concentrates on alto saxophone with a few soprano tracks thrown in for good measure, is aiming his music squarely at the smooth-jazz market--and that he does so very efficiently. But it's still taxing to hear an obviously talented player locked into such an obsessively structured, prepackaged musical environment. Virtually every tune on the album is little more than endlessly repeated, two-bar phrases. It's a stretch, in fact, to even call them melodies. "Dance riffs" might be a more accurate title. One can only wonder how Taylor would sound in a more liberated creative milieu.*

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