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Saxophonists on a Problematic Quest for Individuality

June 30, 2002|DON HECKMAN

What is a jazz saxophonist to do? Every time these poor souls pick up their horns to play, they must confront an internal rush of auditory images from Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane, among others. How to love and accept these noble predecessors without becoming totally captivated within their musical webs?

It's a tough question, but one that is at the core of the problems affecting the 21st century jazz scene--where few jazz giants of the quality of Parker, Hawkins, et al still walk the earth.

The answers are few and far between. That's not to say there isn't some extraordinary jazz being played by saxophonists youthful and mature. If what they have to say often lacks the sound of surprise that has been such an intrinsic aspect of experiencing jazz, it is offered, at least, with dazzling technical facility.

A group of current recordings featuring saxophonists displays a few of the many roads that are being traveled as players pursue their problematic quests for creative individuality.

Joshua Redman, Sam Yahel and Brian Blade, "Yaya3" (***, Warner Bros. Records). Redman has been viewed as one of the music's most gifted young stars since his arrival on the scene a decade ago. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he has attained a degree of visibility reaching beyond the jazz community. In this leaderless trio--with Hammond B-3 organist Yahel and drummer Blade (a group that has appeared regularly at Small's in Manhattan)--he stretches out a bit more freely, on both tenor and soprano saxophones, than he does on the recordings of his own quartet. That's to the good, offering evidence that Redman is continuing to grow and evolve as an artist. The album as a whole, however, suffers from a darkness of tone and concept, in part due to the somber sound of Yahel's organ work, in part as the result of a program of not particularly inspired original material.

Bobby Watson, "Live & Learn" (***, Palmetto Records). Alto saxophonist Watson, a veteran of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (in the late '70s) and leader of numerous groups of his own, possesses one of the most important, and currently far too rare, jazz assets: an immediately identifiable sound. Add to that a quirky sense of rhythmic phrasing--one that ranges from occasional moments of awkwardness to sudden bursts of virtuosic, bop-tinged brilliance--and the resulting package is always fascinating to hear. Leading a group that also features some fine tightrope-walking soloing by pianist Orrin Evans, Watson errs only in electing to include a program almost completely dedicated to originals. One or two--"Why Not" is the best example--sparkle with melodic appeal. But for the most part, as with the "Yaya3" album, the material provides too few hooks to pull the listener into the music.

Gerald Albright, "Groovology" (***, GRP Records). Three stars for an urban jazz/funk album? What's going on here? Just this: One of the primary criterion I use for rating albums is the question of how successful an artist has been at accomplishing what he or she set out to do. In this case, Albright has produced an album that is a well-wrapped package of jazz and rhythm & blues elements that should have no difficulty appealing to its target audience. Beyond its sales appeal, the album is a tour de force for Albright, who leaps from saxophones, woodwinds, keyboards and percussion to background vocalist. Occasionally, in the midst of all that versatility, he knocks out a phrase or two--sometimes more than that--affirming the imagination that simmers beneath the surface of his commercial goals. Albright is aided in reaching those goals by a long list of supporting players, including the estimable Sheila E., Bobby Lyle, Ricky Lawson and others.

Bennie Wallace, "Bennie Wallace in Berlin" (*** 1/2, Enja Records). Commercial goals are not what one encounters in the music of tenor saxophonist Wallace. Always a player who eludes stylistic definition, he combines a dark, brawny sound--one reaching back to the swing era--with a musical open-mindedness embracing everything from mainstream and bebop to the jazz avant-garde. (Although he may be the most individual stylist in this entire grouping of musicians, he is one of the least known. So much for individuality.) In this performance, working with the superb rhythm section of pianist George Cables, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Herlin Riley at a 1999 jazz festival, Wallace emphasizes his edgy, outside-the-box improvising. Opening with wildly ebullient choruses on "It Ain't Necessarily So," he probes the inner workings of "I Loves You Porgy," duets splendidly with Riley to open "It Has Happened to Me" (based on the chords of "It Could Happen to You), adds a Caribbean-style version of "It's Only a Paper Moon" and a soulful "In a Sentimental Mood" to a program without a single less-than-mesmerizing moment.

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