Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: The Composers – Dmitry Baevsky

The focus of this recording is on lesser-known tunes from some of the greatest jazz composers.  The recording starts with Cedar Walton’s “Ojos de Rojo,” a slick, Latin-tinged tune played at upper mid-tempo, whose theme Baevsky plays briskly and simply.  Pianist David Hazeltine begins the solos, and he skillfully employs straightforward, hornlike lines in his improvisation.  Baevsky then takes over, playing mostly straightforward bebop lines with a tone that is full but also possessing a soft and rounded quality, kind of like a softer and more laid back Phil Woods.  Drummer Jason Brown keeps the tune efficiently moving along with subtlety.  Baevsky plays the pretty theme of the next tune, Duke Pearson’s “Gaslight,” in unison and in harmony with guitarist Peter Bernstein, who plays on three of the recording’s nine cuts.  On his solo, Baevsky softly swaggers through the changes, swinging intensely, making the solo seem too brief.  Bernstein plays clean, straightforward lines in his thoughtful solo.  Hazeltine plays another solid solo with hornlike lines. 

Next up is Wayne Shorter’s “Mister Chairman,” an up-tempo, unremarkable blowing vehicle.  Baevsky plays another smooth, musical solo that ends too soon.  Hazeltine’s solo sounds like Baevsky’s solo transposed to the piano.  The other rhythm players, Brown on drums and John Webber on bass, provide a steady cushion of rhythm that is barely noticeable.  Brown plays some tasteful drum fills against Baevsky’s improvised bars before the saxophonist plays the theme to end the cut.  Baevsky and Bernstein play in unison the theme of “To Whom It May Concern,” a nice tune by Horace Silver including one of his trademark pretty bridges.  Bernstein solos first, employing clean, swinging lines.  Baevsky continues to channel Phil Woods in his solo, which builds but ends before it can come to a climax.  Hazeltine gets in another solid solo before the tune ends. 

The group slows things down with Duke Ellington’s “Self-Portrait (of the Bean),” Baevsky employing a breathier tone at a softer volume.  Baevsky stretches out on his solo, virtually massaging the keys of his alto on the gentle ballad.  Baevsky has a lot of restraint in his playing, maybe too much.  Hazeltine then takes over for a brief solo.  On the upper mid-tempo “Swift as the Wind,” by Tadd Dameron, Baevsky again stretches out in a swinging, intelligent solo.  Hazeltine gets off another solid solo.  Bassist Webber then takes a solo, with only Brown’s understated drumming as accompaniment, displaying the same musicality and intelligence as Baevsky and Hazeltine. 

Gigi Gryce’s “Smoke Signal” is a straight, up-tempo bebopper.  Baevsky plays another Phil Woods-ish solo, beginning unaccompanied except for a chord from the rest of the group punctuating the start of each measure.  He lowers the volume on his playing when his lines speed up, giving them a frantic, bumble-bee quality.  Baevsky then trades some fours with Brown.  “Three Wishes,” by Herbie Hancock, is a pretty, upper mid-tempo waltz, with Baevsky and Bernstein playing the theme in unison.  Baevsky gets off a nice solo, and Bernstein, Hazeltine, and Brown follow with solid performances.  After the theme is played, the cut trails off nicely on Hazeltine’s improvising.  The recording ends with Ornette Coleman’s “Tears Inside,” a slightly twisted blues taken at an upper mid-tempo.  The quirky quality of the tune gives Baevsky something a bit more challenging to work with, and he handles it well, playing one of his best solos of the recording.  Hazeltine and Webber follow with good solos of their own. 

The playing on The Composers exemplifies skill, maturity, musicality, and tastefulness.  All the players on the recording are incredibly good at this style of music, taking us through the music as I imagine a great dancer leads his partners, effortlessly and in complete control.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit too restrained; the improvisations never reach above a middling level of intensity.  And though the idea of featuring lesser-known tunes of great jazz composers is a good one, some of the tunes are not very interesting.  (I suppose sometimes tunes are lesser-known for a reason.)  Regarding the leader, Baevsky is a very good alto saxophone soloist, clearly a student of the Phil Woods school, though his tendency to lower his volume when he plays fast lines is a bit bothersome.  Also, his solos tend to linger in the mid-range of the horn; he doesn’t employ the altissimo register at all.  Because his phrasing is fairly conventional and he limits his range, his playing is improved by more challenging and interesting material, like “Tears Inside.”  I hope Baevsky takes on more tunes like this on future recordings, so his obvious improvisational skill can be shown to its fullest advantage.

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