Dragonfly – Gerry Mulligan Quartet – 1995

Dragonfly gerry Mulligan quartet

Dragonfly gerry Mulligan quartetDoes the west coast jazz sound pioneered by bari greats like Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff hold up against a modern jazz context and musicians? This album pairs the unlikely bosom buddies  of Mulligan’s cool bari tone with modern edgy yet full tone of the late great saxophonist Grover Washington jr, cornetist Warren Vache, trumpeter Ryan Kisor and guitarist John Scofield.  As Mulligan’s final recording before his death he reminded us that his style of lyricism and story telling is still fashionable in a world of higher and brighter jazz.

I had all but forgotten this album until I heard it’s title track on the radio. It was then that I remembered that I did not actually own this album. I was released in 1996 and I hadn’t gotten around to purchasing it it. Most notably because it has Gerry Mulligan and Grover Washington. In 1996 i was much more about playing and recording alto saxophone than the horn I would eventually find my voice on, the baritone. As I grew my mulligan collection through the 1990’s and 2000’s it’s still odd that I missed this album. Thankfully I have it now and I’m glad i do.

I mentioned the guest performers on the tracks but the emphasis is still on Mulligans classic quartet and his luscious cool tone. Something of note is that while listening you might notice that Mulligans tone has added a little edge. not a lot of edge mind you but just a bit. I’m still tracking down his setup for this final recording but it does sound different. It could be the higher fidelity of recording between this album and the previous ones.

This album is Gerry Mulligan in his pure form and if you are a fan of his then this album won’t disappoint. If on the other hand you are expecting something totally new then you’ll likely be disappointed. Other than a few track the album feels comfortable and familiar. There isn’t anything wrong with that old familiar feeling but it did leave me wanting more Grover Washington Jr collaboration.

Final Thoughts: This album is solid but safe. It deserves a place in your collection but it won’t bump Konitz meets Mulligan or Mulligan meets Monk off of your bari sax rotation.


Shirantha Beddage – Momentum (2016)

Shrintha Beddage Momentum cover art

Shrintha Beddage Momentum cover artIt should come as no surprise to anyone who’s ready my last 2 reviews of Shirantha Beddage’s albums that I’m a fan of his. I had some idea of what was to come on this album as Shirantha had tweeted its pending release. With the CD release only a month away  I was quite excited to get a copy in my hands and begin the process of consuming it.

Let me start by saying my favorite feature of his combined talents is his tone. Yes, you’ve heard me harp on his tone before and for good reason. I still feel his tone represents a modern take on the husky dark bari sax of yesteryear. It has the edge you’d expect for a soloist but the depth of a big band bari tone. It stands in opposition to what has been a trend towards the brighter more edgy sounds as characterized by players like Pepper Adams, Nick Brignola, Denis Diblasio, and Gary Smulyan. I find Shirantha’s tone to be much more in line with players like Del Dako, Bruce Johnstone, and young players like Adam Schroeder. It’s my hope we’ll hear more soloists take a fuller tone in the future.

Another of my favorite features of this album is the variety of musical styles that are on display. From the New Orleans inspired song Pork Chop to the silky blues groove of Drag and Drop to the traditional Angle of Incidence. Each piece connects to the next though an instrumental or thematic link.That is until you get to the unusual and brief tune Axis of Rotation.

One of interesting tunes is Axis of Rotation, i find the tune somewhat anxiety inducing and unsettling. It has a repeating piano rhythm that is played against the dynamic percussion of Mark Kelso. This motion combined with the melody line weaving in and out with minor tonalities is tastefully unusual. I liked when composer and performers can illicit emotions with their art. The piece is rather short so it stands in good opposition to the straight ahead jazz of the next tune on the album, Angle of Incidence.

The last song on the album, the Long Goodbye, has gospel feeling without taking you church. It could be the soulful piano intro or just the fact that many phrase endings have that solid major resolution. The piece really bookends the album and brings you back to where you started with a simple melody and brilliant playing. It’s the kind of piece that sends a fond and sincere goodbye to the listener with the promise of a bit more in the future. I certainly hoep that is the case.

Listening to the album is like taking a trip with Shirantha as he points out his favorite places along the way. This album is a journey worth taking.


Thar They Blow – Nuclear Whales Saxophone Orchestra (1991)

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

For Us, The Living – Andrew Hadro (2014)

Andrew Hadro has given the baritone saxophone community a great resource in his website jazzbarisax.com 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.

Vue d’en Haut – Céline Bonacina (2005 / 2009)

“Bold, direct and intensely fun”, is how a twitter follower described this album to me and I have no reason not to agree. This album is one of the few that I wish I had heard about years before I bought it. There are many great baritone saxophonists out there and Céline Bonacina  is one that is not often spoken of but should be. Her playing is fiery and passionate but also metered and controlled. It is a fantastic combination for this small group.

This album surprised me in ways that I hadn’t expected. The first is that throughout the entire album she can heard only on saxophones and her voice. That’s it, no alto, bass clarinet, flute, bass flute, whistles, or other woodwind. Every horn she plays is an saxophone. Which may not seem like that big of a deal but in listening to dozens of baritone albums this characteristic stands out. It is very common on bari albums for the saxophone player to play other non saxophones.For example, Denis DiBlasio is a great flautist and places a tune or three on flute in every album. Brian Landrus, a fantastic player often reviewed here, places on average 2 to 3 tunes with bass or alto clarinet.The only bari players without a non-saxophone track in my collection is  Gerry Mulligan, Del Dako, Ronnie Cuber, and Gary Smulyan. Again, I don’t think I have a single album in which I don’t double on a clarinet or flute. I’m not complaining it’s just that it is noticable when an album is all saxophone from the soloist.

Bonacina’s improvised solos sometimes hint at elements of Michael Brecker and James Carter, which on baritone is quite a feat. She uses multiphonics and extended techniques to create an unique atmosphere. She does this well without resorting the musical vulgarity that Carter can command at a moments notice. Her screaming multiphonics and mouthpiece pops are inline with the expression shes trying to convey and once that moment passes they fade back out of her vocabulary.

Bonacina’s is a husky but penetrating contemporary tone with a clear tonal center. It is a unique tone that she carries into all of the saxophones she plays on the album. Because she plays Alto and soprano sax on the album the listener can distill the essence of her personal tone as it is the same across the horns. In other words she sounds like herself on all of the horns. Personally I find her soprano tone a fantastic blend of the open throatedness of a great bari embouchure and the semi-relaxed embouchure of a great soprano tone. I would emulate her soprano tone if I were to begin playing one.

Another unexpected treat on this album is the vocals. They are also performed by Bonacina. She is clearly a lady of multiple talents and knows how to share them humbly. On the tracks in which she is also singing they voice is used as an instrument within the group. Her voice completes chords and liens with a smooth texture that only the voice can bring. It is a rare treat to have a baritone soloist take a vocal solo or sings background figures behind their own record solos.

TAKE AWAY: I enjoyed the variety and playing on display on this album. This album was an impulse buy that sat just waiting for me to remember it. I’m glad I did and I suggest that you get a copy for yourself.

Line-up / Musicians:
CELINE BONACINA – Baritone, Alto, Soprano, Voice –
DIDIER MAKAGA – Fender rhodes piano, Voice

European Saxophone Ensemble – Aeration (2011)

When twelve saxophone players from different countries in Europe sit down to combine their different cultures, languages, and love of all things saxophone the result can only be this album. This album is a split between classical and jazz and features some of the best jazzy improvisations of any saxophone ensemble I’ve ever heard.

Firstly you as a listener should know that the album is 75% classical and more specifically modern classical music. Generally I don’t review classical saxophone music as there is very little focused around the baritone or bass saxophone but this album enough of both horns to create a fun listening experience.  Secondly, this album is a live album and it done so well that short of the applause you’d be surprised that it’s not a studio album. It really shows the level of musicianship within the group.

Like most people who learned saxophone from a young age I learned to play by playing classical music. most of that was transcriptions of classical pieces for other instruments. By the time I had moved to music specifically written for the saxophone I was in high-school and preparing for contests. This continued in to college but never really resonated with me a musician. I still enjoy the advanced techniques and unique tonality of modern 20th/21st century saxophone music but I don’t actively seek it out. I still enjoy practicing the Denisov Sonata and Noda Improvisations to keep my musicality and classical senses sharp but they get short shrift to practicing bebop and scale extensions most weeks.

With that in mind I did spend quite a bit of time enjoying the piece Sassofonissimo: by Jordan Goshev but it wasn’t until I got to the last 3 tracks that my ears perked up and I heard how hard this group can swing. The best part for my ears is their use of the baritone and bass saxophones. In this album the baritones are a powerful voice and add texture to the round bass tone. The blends are the stuff of low saxophone legend. At times it’s hard to hear where the bari begins and the bass ends. Yet at other times the bari’s are playing a tight soli line leaving the bass to hold it own as the solo low horn. It’s during this time that you hear just how valuable a bass saxophone is to a saxophone ensemble.For a great exposed sample of François-Xavier Caillet’s bass tone listen to track 9 titled Memories at about 3:00. He has a full and powerful tone which is clearly an ensemble friendly tone as compared to Colin Stetson’s solo tone or James Carter’s bass tone. His tone is one to be emulated by any ensemble bass saxophone player. 

This album makes me want to start a saxophone ensemble, purchase a bass saxophone, and play jazz standards, and music by Percy Grainger. I’ve always had a soft-spot for Grainger’s compositions.

TAKE AWAY: The last three tracks of this album are what ultimately sold me on the album and is why I am recommending that you the listener own it. More than anything i would love to hear this group play more jazz. They have the orchestration and the skill to make amazing and unique jazz tunes.

The Line up:
Sopranino Saxophone – Miriam Dirr – Germany
Soprano Saxophone – Cornelia Högl – Austria
Soprano Saxophone – Alicja Wołyńczyk – Poland

Alto Saxophone – Simon Širec – Slovenia
Alto/Baritone Saxophone – Zsófia Mészáros – Hungary
Alto Saxophone – Ana Leite de Faria – Portugal

Tenor Saxophone – Peter Cverle – Belgium
Tenor Saxophone – Katerina Mountzeli – Greece
Tenor Saxophone – Manuel Pramotton – Italy

Baritone Saxophone – Menne Smallenbroek – The Netherlands
Baritone/Alto Saxophone – Kenny Talkowski – Spain
Bass Saxophone – François-Xavier Caillet – France

Artistic direction Cezariusz Gadzina
Artistic assistance Veronique Delmelle

Mi-Bemol Saxophone Ensemble – Mi-Bemol Saxophone Ensemble (2009)

What do you get when you combine 4 sopranos, 8 altos, 4 tenors, 4 baritones , and 1 bass saxophone in a concert hall with some of the best classical arrangements to come along for the saxophone? You get the Mi-Bemol saxophone ensemble of course. 

On display on this disk is the kind of group technical mastery that every musical organization should listen to. The intonation, articulation and phrasing here are fine examples of what dedication to your instrument can become in a group setting. Every horn is dynamically perfect and every phrase flows the next. If you didn’t know any better you would swear you were listening to a traditional chamber ensemble.

As is customary in my reviews I have to address, what is in my opinion the best part of this ensemble, the low saxes. The bottom end is built on the bass saxophone and baritones. The bass player must have lungs the size of a whale to be able to support the long flowing lines “Dreams of Love NO.3″. His string bass like tone anchors the low end like no other can. The bass is supported by the powerful baritone section. Their 4 cello like tones fill in the mid and upper regions of the low end and offer the perfect bridge between the Tenor section and bass. The best example of the low saxophone section can be heard in “Serenade op.48” by Tchaikovsky.

Seeing as this is not a band composed of low saxophones I am compelled to offer praise to the remainder of the band. The altos filling the role of the violin is fantastically well arranged. Their combined power and tone ads a string like quality that no other woodwind ensemble can replicate. The real surprise is that the the entire alto section is amazingly in tune at all times. It is proof that more than 1 alto player can indeed play in tune, at the same time no less.

Now if you’ve never played tenor saxophone in classical music then you know that feeling of being the odd person out. While you are the darling of the jazz scene when you get to classical music you are the red-headed stepchild of the saxophone family. You always have supporting lines and every so often are given a moving line with, wait for it, several 8th notes in a row that you share with the 5th clarinet. bass clarinet, bassoon, 3rd trombone, and 4th trumpet. Yeah it’s about a boring a role in music as there can be. You pray for a soli passage in which you can make you line shine only to be waved quite by a conductor who favors the alto portion of that line. As you can imagine I’ve done my time on a tenor in a classical ensemble.

You might expect that the tenors would get similar treatment in this group but I am happy to say that it is not the case. The tenor role in the group is that of the viola. They support the altos from below and add tremendous depth to the mid-tones. I can say with confidence that this group would sound only half as good as it does.  Yes, I am attributing a great value to classical tenor at this moment but it is very well deserved here.

The sopranos are the sizzle and likely to be the players working the hardest in this group. To keep 4 soprano saxophones anywhere near in tune for greater than 20% of the time is a feat deserving of a Nobel prize. It’s almost impossible to consider how hard these 4 musicians must have worked to lock in the intonation and keep it there through the fast moving lines. The sopranos are playing the role of flute, clarinet, oboe, and piccolo. This is no small endeavor for any group of musicians but they pull this off so brilliantly that you have to acknowledge the greatness of the feat.

TAKE AWAY: This group is what Adolph Sax envisioned in his head as he slaved away in his workshop. He had to know at the time that what he made was to be the most flexible, beautiful, adaptive, and responsive of the woodwind family and in turn the most amazing. This album would please Adolph as much as it pleased me and I’m sure it will please you as well. Although I do recommend 1 more bass saxophone, might I suggest a certain writer for MBS?

Mirage – The Brian Landrus Kaleidoscope 2013

I struggled to place this album in an accurate musical genre. Is it pure jazz, chamber music, acoustic ambiance, funk, fusion, or none of these adjectives. Instead I settled in on just calling it “good” music. This album crosses so many boundaries that it isn’t accurate to call it any one thing without acknowledging all of the other influences at play. Though I am partial to Chamber-Jazz-Gooves as a new classification of music and this album would be the first on the shelf.

Brian Landrus has clearly poured a great deal of himself and his current musical dealings into the album and it shows. It has the same jazz foundation that is heard on his previous albums along with mesmerizing and memorable grooves typical of the other group he plays with, Esperanza Spalding, and the Motown groups he used to play with. This combination of his experience and his selection of the funky drummer Rudy Royston has embossed on many of the tracks the kind of danceable grooves which makes or head-boppingly good music.

Normally by this point I would have discussed Brian’s bari sax sound but because I’ve done so in the past and it’s not significantly different this time around I will forgo it and move on to his other woodwinds. This album is a low woodwind paradise. Brian is heard playing nearly every low woodwind in an orchestra to the exception of the bassoon and contra-basoon though maybe we’ll hear it on his next album. As is keeping with his bari sax tone, his alto and bass clarinet tones are rich and woody. This further reinforces the chamber music feel of the album.

The string section is featured prominently on this album often sharing the melody with, or leading Brian through the sections. In this sense the string quartet feels more like a single person than a small collection of individuals. This is a testament to the great musicians and great arrangements on display. The strings add a depth the sound-scape that sets this album apart from any album that I’ve reviewed in the past 2 years. If we are lucky we will hear more of this.

If there is a track that I feel is my favorite it would be Kismet. This piece is an unaccompanied bass saxophone solo in which Brian tells a weaving and moving story utilizing the sax families most sonorous voice.  His bass saxophone story telling is clear and contemporary and is rooted firmly in the jazz world. Unlike the more eclectic and avant-garde bass saxophone music performed by Colin Stetson. This solo piece is immediately accessible and the emotions it conveys are simply powerful and clear.

TAKE AWAY : I enjoyed this album so much that it took me more than 2 months to get around to listening to it from a bari sax music reviews point of view and not just listen for my own enjoyment. I think that this album is a good buy and a great listen.

Brian Landrus: baritone and bass saxophones, bass and contra-alto clarinets, bass flute
Rudy Royston: drums;
Nir Felder: guitar
Frank Carlberg: piano, Rhodes
Lonnie Plaxico: electric and acoustic bass
Mark Feldman: violin
Joyce Hammann: violin
Judith Insell: viola
Jody Redhage: cello
Ryan Truesdell: conductor


Brian Landrus – Brian Landrus Project [2001]

The brian landrus project

When elements of R&B, Hiphop, Free Jazz, and straight-ahead jazz are brought together along side quality performances what you get is the decidedly modern album “Brian Landrus Project”. From the moment you press play this album will surprise you with its driving rhythm section and DJ scratching funky patterns on top of the danceable beat. For all that this album is, there are a few things that it is not.

Let’s start with what this album is not. It is not a baritone saxophone heavy album. If I remember correctly there are only 2 songs in which Brian is playing improvised solos on Baritone. This is a bit of a shame in my opinion but when he does play bari it has a huge sound fills the audio space with the tone. The bulk of this album is Landrus on Tenor sax or flute.This album is also not like the others in the sense that it has a strong sense of collaboration and less of a sense of a soloist and his band.

If it isn’t all of that then what is it? This album is a emulsion of traditional jazz, hiphop, R&B, rock and elements of free jazz. Landrus choose to include elements of popular music that aren’t usually thought of as jazzy. The inclusion of DJ scratching rhythms along side the rhythm section adds a urban rawness that isn’t present in “legit” jazz.. There are also elements of late Miles Davis’esque audio effects on tracks like Organ Donor.

As a huge fan of Esperanza Spalding, well fan may be a bit of an understatement, I was excited  when Landrus started playing with her. Until he started playing with her I was only familiar with his later albums and didn’t quite get where his background in R&B and  funk came from. This album shows that he’s had it in him from the early days. Tracks like Soul Sauce, The Search, and Spur have a funky soul that is impossible to ignore.

Recently I had emailed Brian to see how the Esperanza Tour was going and to let him know I’d be talking about this album. We exchange emails every so often when his schedule has breaks. On the mention of this album he encouraged me not to buy it. He implied that it wasn’t his favorite. This had a huge reverse-psychological effect on me. At that point I had to listen to this album, after all what does this great musician have to hide? In my opinion nothing, he displays youth and exuberance and that makes this album just enjoyable to his later ones only in a different way.

TAKE AWAY: If you have listened to his later albums then you may not recognize the proto-Landrus on display in this album. Tons of passion and drive but not the same polish of his later baritone focused albums. In some ways this album is ahead of its time while also being a product of its time. I do suggest you purchase this album as MP3’s to save a few dollars you can then use to get his 2013 album Kaleidoscope.

NOTE: This album can be hard to find but it can be found on Amazon or reach out to Brain for information. http://brianlandrus.com/

Charles Evans & Neil Shah – Live at St. Stephens [2009]

As harmonically complex as a Denisov or Noda piece and as technically brilliant as a Parker piece.  Charles Evans has captured a sonic haiku and shared it with us all.

It’s not hard to hear why Charles Evans can be seen as a great talent on the baritone. His airy tone only hints at the power he can unleash at a moments notice. His use of large intervalic leaps, micro-tones, extended range, and dynamic contrast which rolls and sweeps across the tracks is evident of his musical mastery.

This album is very introspective and emotional. Unfortunately I don’t have liner notes as I purchased the album digitally. In listening to the the selection I can’t help but wonder if his liner notes offer insight into his moving and complex compositions. This album is avante garde and not quite danceable though with enough confidence any wiggle to the music could be seen as dance. Evans has an audience friendly avante garde style which is similar to players like Sax Rivers or Eric Dolphy.

This isn’t the type of album that I would play on the stereo to get my significant other “in the mood”. No, this kind of music has always been more cerebral to me and requires a fair amount of dedication to the musicians and their efforts. It’s this humble authors opinion that you have to have a relationship with the music and take it on its own terms to really enjoy the magic of it. You don’t have to have a Phd. in music theory to “get it”, you just need to really listen to it.

Evans’ baritone tone on this album is restrained and quite conservative in large sections. You can hear the restraint in his playing. I believe this adds a tension that when released is like an explosion and a great sense of relief for the listener. The venue in which they recorded the album adds greatly to the tone we hear in the recording. The listening space is large and the microphone placement allows for the bass frequencies in his low notes to develop as well as allowing the mid-tones to reflect back to the microphone. The space and or the microphone does seem to lack some of the high frequency which could add more sparkle to his great performance.

Evans is not at it alone on this album. To say he is accompanied by Neil Shah is to minimize the relationship. Shah on piano offers counter point and a base from which Evans can express himself. Shah’s light touch and awareness keeps each piece alive and moving. It is very clear that these two musicians must share a great trust and respect  as there are large swaths of time in which the players seem to move organically between and around each other and complete each others lines.

TAKE AWAY: This is a worthy purchase if you like poetry, avante garde or music to think to. But if you find that this isn’t your cup of tea then it still has loads of value as an example of expressive bari and sensitive piano playing.

Willamette – 2012

Willamette – rel.2012

What do you get when you mix punk, rock, a dash of metal and blend with an in your face baritone saxophone? Willamette, of course. This band is pushing the convention of baritone saxophone playing and kicking ass along the way. This is not some “Morphine” tribute group or a jazz quartet dabbling in the dark musical arts. This is a group of musicians with love of the style and desire to make it their way.

As is the norm with my reviews I have to address the tone Mat Rippetoe brings to the album. His baritone tone is full and loaded with power. It is not a pure tone as he is using many audio effects on the baritone sax. You may think that this would be a bad thing but in this case it works perfectly and is mostly transparent. The effect of his tonal modifications was to give his tone more edge and ability to stand along side the distorted guitar and punchy bass. Sure, he could have bought a mouthpiece that gave him punch, a Rico Metalite comes to mind, but at a cost to overall tone. His use of a Yanagisawa metal baritone mouthpiece was a good choice as it is a medium bright piece with loads of flexibility.

When I first heard Mat on the tune “Knots” I would have sworn that Ronnie Cuber had joined the group in that moment. His improvised solo was punchy, funky and the perfect Cuber’ish sound made the song my favorite on the album. This was one of many moments while listening to this album that I was genuinely surprised. The improvised solos by Mat and Yoshie Fruchter are appropriate and fit the metal music genre perfectly. The solos reflect their jazz education and their practiced metal and punk ears.

The things that bothered me about the album were more nit picky than anything else. Some songs across the album were a little cliched and though they were accurate to the general style of music at play they didn’t shine as brightly as some other. For example “Fonebone” didn’t have the intensity and “Dark Star” but was still a good song. The other mildly bothersome thing is the audio sound-stage sounds large due to an overly healthy dosage of reverb. This has a tendency to add body to the slightly annoying effects sizzle you hear at the top of the track. This doesn’t detract from the experience but when you listen with quality earphones it is present in the empty musical spaces.

Take Away: I truly hope that young people playing baritone saxophone listen and realize that with some imagination, preparation, and dedication they too can make great genre bending music. I wish these guys commercial success and that they start a mailing list so I will know when the next release is due.

You can buy their album on Itunes and directly from http://mrippetoe.bandcamp.com/album/willamette

Line up:
Matt Rippetoe – baritone saxophone
Yoshie Fruchter – guitar
Gary Pickard – bass
Dave Previ – drums

Shirantha Beddage – Identity (2012)

Shirantha Beddage – Identity (2012)

Shirantha Deddage Identity

Not since Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker’s collaborations have I been excited to hear a trumpet and baritone saxophone creating small ensemble jazz.  But is this album is a worthy successor to Shirantha Beddage’s 2006 album “Roots and Branches“?

Six years have passed since the “Roots and Branches” album and Beddage’s tone and tastes have matured and become more refined. It is easy to hear that his sound as a whole has become a part of who he is more completely than it was in 2006. This has manifested itself as the most baritone-like tone I’ve heard in a while. It is intensely clean and clearly discernible as a baritone saxophone on every note and in every register. In fact, if I had students I would be hard pressed to choose between Beddage and Brian Landrus as an example of what a powerful and modern bari tone could be.
Variety seem to be a pattern with Beddage’s composing style, there are wide variations in the style of each song. This has the effect of leaving you curious about what is going to be next. Also a trademark of his composition style is the length of his pieces. He gives ample time for his thoughts and feelings to play themselves out throughout each piece. This gives the listener time to connect to each piece in a uniquely personal way that is difficult when a piece is too short or the individual improvised sections occur to rapidly. His use of time, tempo, and rhythm as the 6th member of the group really makes this album standout in my collection. The only other baritone player I felt really used time and rhythm well is Ronnie Cuber.
This album has some of the hippest grooves I’ve heard on a jazz album in a while. The listener can’t help but bop your head along with the rhythm section on Winds of Change and Pyramid Scheme. These pieces are pushed along by the driving rhythm section. This forms the backdrop for Dave Restivo’s passionately playful piano and Rhodes solos.  Of course Restivo isn’t working alone here, on bass is Mike Downes. His playing is exactly what you would want from a bass player. He keeps the groove going, supports the improviser and serves as the harmonic foundation of the group. He is both visible and invisible in the groups sound.

I would be remiss if I didn’t describe Nathan Eklund’s contribution on the trumpet. His sensitivity as an artist is evident in every phrase and every note. Through out this album he plays with passion, precision and consideration while never stepping on the rest of the band or trying to steal the spotlight. After all he has his own project, The Nathan Eklund Group to fulfill his spotlight needs. Personally I would have loved to hear him on the Flugelhorn on the tracks he is on. His Flugelhorn tone is in inviting mix of Miles Davis and Chuck Mangione.

Take Away: This album is replete with musical gems, interesting quotes, and introspective composing. I recommend purchasing this album, twice if you have friends who may want to borrow it. If I could change or add anything to this album it would be a Blue-Ray “making of” movie or a downloadable concert video.
On Further Consideration: Despite my glowing opinion of this album I recognize that it is not all things to all people. It is a well-made album of modern compositions and neither Carney, Brignola, Adams, nor Mulligan reside here.  I feel that there are at least 2 future jazz standards on this album: Pushin’, and Winds of Change come to mind most immediately.
Shirantha Beddage –  Baritone Saxophone / Bass clarinet
Nathan Eklund – Trumpet
Dave Restivo – Piano / Fender Rhodes
Mike Downes – Bass
Mark Kelso – Drums (tracks 1, 4 – 9)
Larnell Lewis – Drums (track 2, 3)

The Rein De Graaff Trio – Baritone Explosion! Live at Nick’s (2008)

The Rein De Graaff Trio – Baritone Explosion! Live at Nick’s (2008)

This album is the auditory equivalent of watching Godzilla and Mothra battle it out in the center of a large Japanese city. Each of the solo musicians is a titan and brings a level of musicianship which both challenges and compliments the other. The titans in questions are baritone saxophone greats, Ronnie Cuber and the late Nick Brignola.
The hardest part about writing this review was taking off the headphones long enough to get anything written. Each of these men gives life and passion to the baritone saxophone in ways that aren’t easily explained. This is clearly a testament to their love of the horn and their dedication as musicians. Their voices on these horns are a different as night two peoples speaking voices but blend so well that at times it’s hard to hear where one begins and the ends. Clearly, this album would have been even better if it were a video of the concert.
The musician who obviously brought this into fruition is Rein De Graff. His piano virtuosity is apparent throughout this recording without starting a game of one-upmanship. His playing is delicate, pervasive, and moves the music forward without ever letting the two lumbering horns run away with the set. To hear this rhythm section play is a wonderful exercise in presence and support without dominance and ego. “The right note, at the right time” as my first saxophone teacher used to say.
This album features some of my favorite jazz standards: Blue Train, A Night in Tunisia, and In a Sentimental Mood to name a few. Because of this the album has the feel of a great jam night out at a jazz club rather than an extensively mixed down studio recorded album.  There are times when each player chips an altissimo note or comes in a fraction of a second too early or drops out of a long note due to breath. But that doesn’t  take away from the listening experience. It helps us hear that these musical super men have to breath like the rest of us musical mortals and that keeping super accurate timing can even be tough for the pro’s at time.
Not since the Three Baritone Saxophone Band has there been a better batch of players on the baritone in one recording. Though to be forthcoming this is two thirds of the Three Baritone Saxophone band and in a way it does feel like it’s missing a little Smulyan but that sentiment is short lived when the music pickups. All the pieces on this album have a live energy you don’t get from the expertly recorded Three Baritone Saxophone Band Plays Mulligan” album.

Of course I don’t want to sell short Rein De Graff or the rest of his trio. These musicians are close and form the core on to which the magic of dual bari saxes can expose itself. Rein is a monster player in his own right and a virtuoso by any measure. His solos are skillful, complex and endearing to the listener. That coupled with the intimate musical relationship between Ineke on bass and Serierse on drums is the formula for a perfect rhythm section. 

TAKE AWAY: This album sets the bar high for baritone saxophonists. The individual playing is playful and exciting. There isn’t a single track which disappoints. This is an album to own and enjoy regularly as there is something new to discover on every playing.. 

1. Softly As In A Morning Sunrise
2. Caravan
3. In A Sentimental Mood
4. What’s New
5. A Night In Tunisia
6. Blue Train
7. Crack Down

Nick Brignola – Baritone Saxophone
Ronnie Cuber – Baritone Saxophone
Rein De Graaff – Piano
Eric Ineke – Drums
Koos Serierse – Bass

Erik Lawrence – Hipmotism (2007)

Erik Lawrence – Hipmotism (2007)

Listening to the music on this album is like reaching into a bag of assorted jellybeans and eating whatever you touch.  Sure, most of what you touch you will like but every now and then you find a spicy cinnamon or the inky blackness of licorice and it will make you recoil. This album has music to love and music that makes you wonder why it was paired with the other tracks around it. At times I found myself forgetting what I was listening to.
As is my tradition, I have to address the 500lb gorilla in this musical room. Erik Lawrence’s baritone is the dominant voice in this quartet and rightfully so. He takes command and leads this group from out front musically. His tone is not a bright as one might expect for a solo artist but it has bite and depth. His tone is a good compromise between a soloist focused uber-baffled tone and one that would get lost in the mix with the bass.  Lawrence’s command of his horn is evident as he moves into and out of altissimo while playing some of the funkiest improvised lines ever played on a baritone.
His counter voice on this album is an instrument that I now lust to play with. Steven Bernstein makes the slide trumpet sound like less of a little trombone and more of a glissando happy trumpet. His higher voicing adds breadth to the sound palette that a tenor saxophone or tenor trombone would lack. This works well as both horns are comping each other during solos as there is no piano or guitar to define chords. Instead the bass and the non-improvising musician draw the underlying chords for the improviser. The effect on the listener is that of musicians who love to play and the feeling that these they are connected.
There are some superbly inspired New Orleans style funky pieces on this album. “Big Chief” and “Soulville” really stand out as feet stomping and booty shakingly fun pieces. These two are worth the price of admission to this musical wonderland. After each of these pieces is sandwiched tunes which are a akin to the funeral dirges you hear on the way to the cemetery in a New Orleans funeral. They are great in their own and provide contrast but with the tempo set to “fun” these pieces bring you back to earth rather harshly.
This album has a couple ahead jazz pieces as well and a bit of an unexpected gem, the Beatles song “Come together”.  This piece is worth mentioning on its own because musically there is a great deal happening at all times. From jingle bells ringing like gentle rain in the background to Bernstein’s breathy slide solo, This piece changes pace often, and is led by the subtly hip drums. Then, like a funk bandit, Lawrence begins his solo and gives the funk beat something to push against. From there Lawrence slowly builds his solo and by ½ way though his solo Rene on bass hits his phaser and distortion pedals and reminds us that this is and was a rock song.
TAKE AWAY:  I like this album and will likely rip it to my ipod. Not all of the songs but most of them to be sure. This is the type of album I would recommend listening to on iTunes and buying the tracks that you like. You are bound to like more than half.
Erik Lawrence – Baritone Saxophone
Steven Bernstein  – Slide trumpet
Allison Miller – Drums
Rene Hart – Acoustic Bass

B. J. Jansen & Conjura – The Movement Vol. 1 (2011)

B. J. Jansen & Conjura – The Movement Vol. 1 (2011)
It is a strange feeling to hear a musician and instantly feel connected to them. This is the case with the tone of B.J. Jansen. His bari tone sounds exactly like the tone I hear in my head when I play. I am not suggesting that I sound like him. I do not sound like the tone I hear in my own head. When I listen to recording of myself I never sound the same as in my head. He on the other hand is my imagination made real. His tone is husky, dark, and above all else clear. It has the classic sound of a big chamber mouthpiece and lots of air to support the big hulking horn. 
B. J. Jansen & Conjura – The Movement Vol. 1 (2011)This album surprised me more than anything else I’ve heard recently, short of the “Call me maybe” musical meme trouncing all others on the net. I had never heard of B. J. Jansen or the group he leads called Conjura before I pressed play. What greeted me was collection of musicians which from their makeup made me think cool jazz. The lineup is Bari, Trumpet, Drums, Bass, and Piano. With a lineup like that I almost expected to here Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker  to come out of my speakers. That was certainly not the case but it does show that the combination still has viability and as much auditory appeal as it did 60 years ago. The complimentary ranges and tones allow for a depth that I don’t think is possible with instruments whose ranges overlap completely.
I have to draw attention to the other wind voice, Daud El-Bakara. What impressed me the most, is his use of space in his solos. Sure, his runs are a tad sloppy at times but I think it adds to the overall feel of the music. His style compliments Jansen while never stealing the show with absurd altissimo or too clichéd licks. I don’t mean to suggest his playing is only adequate. It is quite the opposite in my opinion. He has something to say and with every opportunity he does and that helps keep the music vibrant and moving.
I am always cautious when doling out criticism because the first response is usually “Can you do any better?” and in some cases it is a yes and in others it’s a no but I listen to more baritone music than most. I spend 4 to 6 hours listening to an album before writing about it. With that out of the way I not particularly enamored with Jansen’s improvisational style for a artist whose name is listed aside from the group he leads. In some pieces his improvised solos tend ramble compared to other solo artists I’ve reviewed. It’s only on a couple songs where this seems to be the case.  “Relaxin’ with Jessica” is one of them but in contrast is the first 1:40 of his solo on “Brandon’s Blues. Very laid back and open sounding as he is accompanied by only the bass.
Take Away: Buy it. This album is well made and a good listen. There is a lot to like but sadly I did not personally connect to the album as a whole. I would recommend listening to it as there are great phrases to learn and it’s priced very well on Amazon.com.
B.J. Jansen – Baritone Saxophone
Daud El-Bakara – Trumpet
Christopher Beck – Drums,
Mike Boone – Bass,
Frank Stagnitta – Piano
Ed Wise – Bass
Wayne Smith Jr. – Drums