Tenor Uncertainty

A strong crop of releases from tenor saxophonists

What does it say about the current state of jazz that this fall's most eagerly anticipated "new" release is a Miles Davis concert package from 1966? (The only real competition is a Sonny Rollins largely drawn from last year's 80th-birthday celebration and documenting his encounter with fellow octogenarian Ornette Coleman; a live Coltrane from 1967 has been postponed indefinitely, or it, too, would be in the running.) Possibly just that jazz has veered in so many different directions since the period represented by these latest artifacts—and its cognoscenti has splintered into so many distrustful camps—that their appeal is greatly intensified by a longing for something resembling yesterday's near-unanimity of opinion regarding which figures were worth following wherever their muses and the zeitgeist took them.

There's no consensus anymore. Take the question of who from the generation of tenor saxophonists after his stands next in line behind Rollins. Poll results suggest Joe Lovano, and the crowd leaving the Village Vanguard on any given night would probably agree. But the answer at the Stone—farther east, farther downtown, and farther out—might be David S. Ware. David Murray and James Carter would likely receive scattered mentions elsewhere, and advocates of European free improvisation would no doubt back their own nominees.

Maybe a failure to strike consensus is good news. Not even counting Rollins's Road Shows, Vol. 2, which having annotated disqualifies me from reviewing, this has been a banner year for releases by tenor saxophonists, including those named above. These albums showcase an impressive diversity of post-bop approaches—and indicate that uncertainty over who is top dog could be a sign of strength across the board.

James Carter

Caribbean Rhapsody

(Emarcy)

So zesty I pity anyone who passes it by on account of a categorical aversion to jazz-and-classical hyphenates. A clue to what's going on in Roberto Sierra's "Concerto for Saxophones and Orchestra" ("saxophones" plural; Carter doubles on tenor and soprano) comes from spotting Krzysztof Penderecki listed as artistic director of the accompanying Sinfonia Varsovia. A Webern disciple early in his career, and then a follower of Stockhausen and Cage in turn, Penderecki re-embraced tonality in a big way in the late 1970s, signaling a shift among European composers that gradually influenced orchestra commissions and university hirings here. For all its peppery dissonances and Latin rhythms (reflecting the Ithaca-based Sierra's Puerto Rican heritage), the "Concerto" is neo-romanticism writ large, demanding of us only that we take pleasure in its full-range symphonics and its featured soloist's virtuosity—and because Carter's virtuosity is so boundless, and his passions so brimming, the pleasure is immense. The title piece—featuring Carter's horns and his cousin Regina's violin, abetted by string quartet and walking bass—is more modest in scale but every bit as diverting, beginning as a bolero and ending in the pocket, with a ballad interlude and plenty of snappy call-and-response from the Carters in between. Even if a pair of unaccompanied sax solos seems like filler, the album amounts to a career milestone for a problematic figure who hasn't always chosen his special projects so tastefully.

James Carter Organ Trio

At the Crossroads

(Emarcy)

I won't point to this because it's by an ongoing combo of Carter's—and because though Carter never raises his Detroit-based bandmates and a bevy of added starters to his own level, he doesn't sink to theirs, either. Even if he occasionally embraces their which-way-back-to-the-chicken-shack clichés, they're no longer clichés by the time he's done with them. "Lettuce Toss Yo Salad" and a cover of Julius Hemphill's "The Hard Blues" (fast becoming a standard) demonstrate that he can walk the bar with the best of them, and both sport astonishing tonal and harmonic zigzags. And his barrel-chested balladry on the obscure Sarah McLawler's "My Whole Life Through" is worthy of comparison to Ike Quebec or maybe even Ben Webster. Organist Gerard Gibbs is redeemed when the band goes back to church on "'Tis the Old Ship of Zion" and Ellington's "Come Sunday."

Joe Lovano/Us Five

Bird Songs

(Blue Note)

The Jazz Journalists Association has already named this Charlie Parker tribute its Album of the Year, but this member thinks it fails to confront a problem inherent to its genre. For Parker, as for most in his bebop cohort (the exceptions begin with Tadd Dameron, and we'll quibble about Monk another time), basing "originals" on Tin Pan Alley chord changes and stock blues licks wasn't just a way of creating springboards for improvisation; it was a form of improvisation in itself. Doesn't giving new spins to Parker's tunes—playing "Donna Lee" as a ballad, for example—risk missing the point? That said, "Yardbird Suite" slowed down to a midnight blues wail proves a perfect vehicle for Lovano's tenor (though I wish he'd left his secondary, higher-pitched horns—his shrill autochrome, especially—at home), the band's two drummers (Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela) crisscross each other's beats nicely, and I might get the fuss over Esperanza Spalding if all I had to go on were her mobile bass lines here and on Lovano's 2009 Folk Art.

David Murray Cuban Ensemble

Plays Nat King Cole en Español

(3D Family/Universal)

At the height of the cocktail/bachelor pad mini-craze about 15 years ago, the pop critic Milo Miles sneered that something could be considered hip simply because it didn't used to be. Today's evidence of decay seems to be the flurry of doppelgänger tribute albums honoring even the most negligible of yesterday's releases. But this fanciful tip of the cap to the pair of Spanish-language LPs Cole recorded in Havana a split second before the revolution both proves Murray's ingenuity as an arranger and sends you back to the originals to hear if you misjudged them. A revisit proved initial impressions to be correct; singing in a foreign tongue robbed Cole's phrasing of its usual confidence. This isn't a problem for Murray's tenor sax and bass clarinet; he also smartly eliminates the Latinate MOR that Cole included as a sop to Anglo squares ("Vaya Con Dios" and the like) in favor of the gorgeous (and subsequently forgotten) originals the singer and his arranger Nelson Riddle commissioned from the era's foremost Cuban and Mexican composers. Daniel Melingo's two vocal turns are as guttural in delivery as Cole's were smooth, which only enhances this unlikely program's surprising originality.

David S. Ware/Cooper-Moore/William Parker/Muhammad Ali

Planetary Unknown

(Aum Fidelity)

Though not yet a match for Ware's '90s quartet with Matthew Shipp, this new unit boasts many of the same virtues—beginning with another pianist (Cooper-Moore) whose earth-gouging solos and akimbo comping throw Ware's headlong cosmic assaults into bold relief. Ware is blowing full-throttle on tenor again following his kidney transplant, and displaying increased facility (along with his usual rugged tenderness) on both of his ancillary horns, sopranino and stritch.

So much for the recognized challengers. Next time: up-and-comers, long shots, and a few out-of-towners.

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2 comments
Chuck Koton
Chuck Koton

Y'all need to check out Azar Lawrence...as bad a tenor player as there is...hes been back on the jazz scene for several years now, after a meteoric appearance as a 20 year old on McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones and Miles Davis recordings in the 70s. His most recent CD, "Mystic Journey" is an eye opener and he'll be at the Jazz Standard the middle of December to record live with Nicholas Payton, Tain Watts, Benito Gonzalez and Essiet Essiet...check him out!!!!!!!!!

Fergoodnesssake
Fergoodnesssake

Tenor Uncertainty, indeed! There is no such thing, for it is certain that the tenor is always the most certainly visceral and cerebral of all musical instruments, beginning with Mr. Lester Willis Young, a la Basie 1936. Prior to Prez, Mr. Coleman Hawkins held forth, but without Lester's complete, certain, creative cadences that led to the more advanced and sophisticatedly strident sounds of Mr. Charles Parker, and on to Mssrs. Theodore Sonny Rollins, and John William Coltrane. Listening to Mr. Lovano, one hears the rat-a-tat of notes shot from a Gatling gun. Edward Sonny Stitt, was far faster on the draw; he could swing, too, and his love for taking on all comers, either at the OK Corral or Birdland, posited him as the truly original gladiator of the tenor, shuffling from town to town, using local rhythm sections and leaving behind wasted wannabes to revisit their woodsheds. Mr. Carter, is, indeed a virtuoso encompassing the spirits of Prez, Bird, Newk, 'Trane, and a taste of Illinois Jacquet, and Red Prysock. Please be careful when placing Mr. Lovano on a pedestal above Mr. Carter. The latter is far higher on the tenor ladder, and the former is hardly among those on the rungs of greatness. That's for certain.

 
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