In October I wrote about trying to find more information about the Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra (NWSO) group as they had faded into obscurity since the 1990’s. At the time of writing that I was waiting on the arrival of a few of their albums. I’ve been a fan since I first heard this album back in 1994. This group of brilliant musicians is unique as it is has a contra-bass saxophone and sopranino saxophone. At the time of this recording finding either of these instruments was about as hard as finding a sober person in Boston on St. Patrick’s day. Simply stated difficult but they were out there if you knew where to look.

The first thing that caught my eye was the great cover art. I love CD’s for many reasons but first among them is the cover art. Yes, you can get your media play to download the art but more often than not you don’t get the liner notes or CD facing art.If you buy the CD from a local used record store you may even get unusual bonuses like old business cards, or artist signatures.

Compare Don’s contra-bass (left) to Art’s bass (right)

Let’s start at the big fish in the saxophone pond, the contra-bass saxophone. Today there are other options for this hulking behemoth. Eppelsheim contra-bass saxophone that is more compact and lighter looking than the vintage monster that Don Stevens plays on the album. Don’s unusual Buffet (Evette-Shaefer) Eb contrabass saxophone has a big booming sound on the album and definitely makes an impact on everyone who see it in person. At 6’8″ (2.03 m) tall and 45lbs (20kg) a contra-bass is not for weak of body or with small lung capacity. Aside from the shock value the contra-bass does add value to the group. It extends the range of the bass voicing to that of the lower register of the organ. This allows for broad and very rich chords that do not feel as though they are missing something.

On the other extreme is Rach Cztar on sopranino. ‘Nino is not an instrument for the faint either. It is a wickedly difficult horn to play well and it’s propensity to go out of tune is legendary. I own a ‘nino and I find it’s intonation to be very sensitive to reed and and mouthpiece changes. Clearly experience and dedication has given Rach the ability to tame the dragon and allow it to ring like a bell in the thick arrangements the group performed.

Musically this group likes thick chords and arrangements which feel more like big band than small’ish saxophone group. This is a godsend as quartet arrangements often feel like parts are missing or not covered well.  Often it’s the low range that falls short. Big saxes are expensive, rare, and require a lot of extra consideration just to move them from point A to point B but their contribution to the sound of a group is immeasurable. Listen to the bouncing bass line and you realize that this is a sound that can not be replicated on a bari or bass sax, you have to have the range and punch to hold down the bass. Perhaps the best side effect of having bass and contra-bass in the same group is that it frees the baritone from being the bass voice in the group. In quartets the baritone holds down the bass line but in groups like this the baritone can be free to be the solo voice without the fear of the bottom dropping out of the chords.

The musical selection on this album cover the 20th century quite well up tot he 90’s and makes for easy listening. In fact many of the videos circulating on YouTube of this group is from concerts in which they are playing songs from this album. Including the crowd favorites “Bugler’s Holiday”, “Casbah Shuffle“, and “Tiger Rag”. As you might have experienced the YouTube versions of videos are of lower quality than the studio recordings on this disk. It is because of this I have to recommend listening to the disk over watching the videos. The sound quality is much better and the details you get from a studio record trump the visuals of a contra-bass sax dancing across a stange.

Line Up:
Rach Cztar: Sopranino, Alto, Duck Call
John Davis: Alto, Tenor
Ann Stamm Merrell: Baritone
Art Springs: Tenor, Bass, Vocal
Don Stevens: Soprano, Alto, Vocal
Kristen Strom: Soprano, Alto, Vocal

Ashwin Batish: Tabla
Wince Lateano: Drums, Tam Tam
Galen Lemmon: Timpani

Get this album on Amazon like I did

Andrew Hadro has given the baritone saxophone community a great resource in his website and now he’s sharing his art with us. This album of music by living American composers is his first as a solo artist and I hope won’t be his last.

The baritone sax has a sound which is nearly infinitely malleable by the musician playing it. From a reedy buzz reminiscent of a cello to the  lush round tone of bass trombone and every degree of spectrum in between. Andrew Hadro’s tone is quintessential baritone. It features a rich core with plenty of reediness to help define its woodwind nature and to help the tone carry. His tone is unique yet the discerning ear can hear subtle  hints of players who inspired him. I hear a bit of Smulyan is his tone.

One important aspect of this album which sets it apart from main stream is that it isn’t filled with the tried and true standards revisited. Instead, Hadro chose to play modern compositions by living composers. For this reviewer it is a welcome break from the songs that I’ve grown up hearing in as many tempos, arrangements, and time signatures as there are stars in the sky. . As a jazz lover, Hadro is expanding our musical horizons and exposing us to the talent of composers we may not have heard of yet.

One of the prominent features of this album aside from great composition choices is the sensitivity each player has towards the music, the other band members, and the shared musical entity they are creating together. If you look at the piece “Give” by Julian Shore, who also co-produced the album, and you will hear delicate dance between the four instruments. The piece is filled with subtle movements and space between phrases.

My only complaint about the album is the panning of the solo voice. I much prefer that the solo instrument be dead center. In general I listen to an album 4 to 6 times in as many ways as possible. From quitely comtemplating after a long day to a quick drive to the grocery store, I listen with one or both ears at a time. In listening it feels like the bari is ever so slightly off center in the mix. It’s not a big deal and a little nitpicky but it’s the only thing I could find to pick at on this album and even then it’s hardly noticeable.

TAKE AWAY: This album deserves every penny you pay for it and more. It is a fine display of modern jazz compositions and impressive playing by all the musicians on the album. Buy it and then another to gift.