Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: More Than Imaginable - Ricky Sweum

I got wind of a saxophone player I’d never heard of before named Ricky Sweum from listening to an interview with him on the “Best Saxophone Website Ever.”  I then checked out Sweum’s website, listened to some samples I liked, and decided to check out his latest recording, “More Than Imaginable" (Ninjazz Records).

Sweum was a freelance musician in NYC; since 2003, he’s been in various Air Force jazz ensembles.  I suspect that the Air Force demands impeccable musicianship from any members of its bands, and, based on “More Than Imaginable,” Sweum fits this bill.   His sound is clear and strong and his technique is excellent, on both tenor and soprano.  Also, he’s one of those saxophonists (like Walt Weiskopf) who considers his composing as important as his playing and is equally competent at both.  All ten tracks on “More Than Imaginable” were composed by Sweum. 

The first track, “Earth Squid,” is a lively, up tempo tune, and Sweum’s playing is driving and fluid.  Pianist Ed Simon exhibits similar qualities in his solo, perhaps employing even more drama and progression than Sweum.  “Barry’s Barnacle Blues” is a clever, well-disguised blues.  Here, Simon solos first, sailing through the tune’s tricky changes.  Sweum follows on soprano with a solid, graceful solo.  “Sleeping Man” is an intense, up tempo, modal tune that has Sweum on tenor at his most Brecker-like, bending notes and screaming in the upper register (though without as much false fingering as Brecker would use).  Drummer Clarence Penn adds fills over a vamp before having the stage all to himself for a nice solo.  The title track is a slow, pretty ballad whose melody gets stuck in your head.  Both Simon and Sweum (again on tenor) play through slow and then double-time sections in their fine solos.  “Canyon Dance,” with Sweum back on soprano, is an upper mid-tempo, straight ahead tune, with Sweum flying through the changes and Simon displaying great chops while maintaining his expressiveness.  Bassist Dave Robaire solos before the tune ends with some nice improvised interplay between all the players. 

“Belonging” (not the Keith Jarrett tune) is a pretty composition played at mid-tempo, with Simon sounding Corea-esque and Sweum back on tenor.  “Kiva” is also a mid-tempo tune, giving the opportunity for Sweum (on tenor) and Simon to really dig into the tune with probing solos.  “Things You Think You Have to Do” is a languid ballad.  The solos from Simon, Sweum, and Robaire are fine and seem too brief.  “Chekhovian Circus Song” is an angular tune, both melodically and harmonically, with Sweum on soprano.  The album closes with “Kerabag’s Trance.”  This tune begins like a slow tango, with Sweum playing tenor, employing some screaming in the upper register like Jan Garbarek.  After Simon solos, Sweum continues in Garbarek mode, using dramatic note-bending, short bursts of melody, and more upper range screaming.  This is some of Sweum’s most interesting playing.  He should also get credit for not ending his album with a show stopper tune but rather something that leaves the listener wanting more.

“More Than Imaginable” is a work that has a lot of variety in its tunes, and Sweum’s playing is solid throughout.  The supporting work from Simon, Penn, and Robaire is very good, with Simon soloing at least as well as Sweum.  I find a bit too much uniformity in Sweum’s playing and a lack of risk-taking and suspense-building, but this is a minor criticism.  Based on “More Than Imaginable,” Ricky Sweum deserves to have his future work watched closely, as he clearly has the potential to be a great player.

Note: I downloaded this CD from the Ninjazz Records website, along with (at no extra charge) the CD photos, 51 additional session photos, and the PDF's of the sheet music for the CD's tunes.  This was a very nice deal. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Review: Pat Metheny Unity Band

It’s been a long time since Pat Metheny has had a saxophonist in his band (apparently 30 years, since the superb “80/81” album, with Dewey Redman and Mike Brecker), so “Pat Metheny Unity Band” (Nonesuch) is something of an event, with Chris Potter playing saxophone; Ben Williams on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums complete the quartet.  This album is mostly a showcase for Metheny and Potter, with a few solos from Williams and Sanchez, though their support is excellent.  Potter plays almost exclusively on tenor sax, with one solo on soprano and some background playing on bass clarinet.

The album starts with “New Year,” a pretty tune with a Latin feel, Metheny on acoustic guitar.  Potter solos on tenor, displaying strong low notes as well as a fluid command of the altissimo range of the horn.  “Roofdogs” is a straightahead anthem, with Metheny on guitar synthesizer and Potter in unision on soprano sax.  This one is similar to the sound on Mike Brecker’s “Tales of the Hudson,” where Metheny’s work is prominent.  Potter plays a strong soprano solo, with Metheny’s guitar synthesizer sounding like an electrified violin.  On “Come and See,” Metheny and Potter start out a little spacy, Potter noodling on bass clarinet and Metheny playing something that sounds like an oriental harp.  The tune moves into a medium-tempo groove with Potter back on tenor.  He plays one of his strongest solos here.  “This Belongs to You” is a pretty ballad which is a feature for Metheny on his acoustic electric.  Potter plays tenor in unison on the melody with Metheny, but he doesn’t solo. 

“Leaving Town” is a nice medium tempo tune, somewhat similar to Metheny’s well-known tune “James.”  Potter digs in for a very strong solo here, a little edgier than usual.  “Interval Waltz” is a pretty, strolling, minor waltz.  Potter matches the prettiness of the tune with his own fine tenor solo.  “Signals (Orchestrion sketch)” starts with some Potter playing on bass clarinet and Metheny fooling around with a variety of sounds.  (The first part of the tune has some pre-recorded playing from the band.)  After almost 3 minutes of fairly aimless playing, the tune starts an uptempo groove, sounding a bit like Ike Sturm’s “Spirit,” though where Sturm uses a 10-piece ensemble, Metheny uses his orchestrion.  Metheny and Potter improvise together, Potter on tenor and Metheny on guitar synthesizer, their lines weaving around each other.  (For anyone who wants to learn more about Metheny's orchestrion project, click here.)  “Then and Now” is another pretty ballad, with Metheny on acoustic electric.  Potter plays a nice, easy-going solo on tenor, avoiding pyrotechnics until the very end, where he makes a series of fast swoops into the altissimo register.  The album ends with a straightahead, uptempo tune, Metheny on acoustic electric, Potter on tenor.  Metheny shows off his chops, playing lines with lightning-fast fingering.  Potter solos with his own lightning-fast lines.
This album has great variety and pacing.  The tunes have perfect length.  It’s not ground-breaking, but it’s a pleasure from beginning to end.  How can you go wrong with strong Pat Metheny compositions and playing and Chris Potter playing at the top of his game?  Potter’s playing isn’t quite as adventurous as Mike Brecker’s (Metheny’s frequent collaborator before he passed away)--I get the impression that Potter has his roots much more in Charlie Parker than John Coltrane--but he plays exceptionally well throughout the album.  Jazz saxophone fans will not be disappointed with this one.

To listen to the whole of the first cut on the album, "New Year," click here.