This recording came out a few years ago (2009), but occasionally I see Rigby’s name mentioned in the New York Times, and I’m unfamiliar with his work, so this review falls in the “catching up” category.
“Magenta” starts with a meter-less duet between Rigby (on tenor sax) and Johnson on a slow theme, with sparse accompaniment from the rhythm players. Then Johnson solos, alternating between punchy and swooping phrases (a nice mix of traditional and edgy) with a strong sound containing a little buzz. Rigby comes in near the end of Johnson’s solo, and the tempo picks up. Rigby plays aggressive, adroit phrases all over the horn with a muscular, clean tone. His approach is a bit like Billy Harper’s, but more earthy. Holober then plays a solo of loosely-connected but still cohesive phrases, Cleaver accompanying with a controlled high intensity. Rigby and Johnson then play the fragmented theme loosely and casually but still like it’s familiar as an old friend.
“Crux” is up-tempo and has a fast, hard boppish theme played by Johnson and Rigby, with the rhythm section quietly churning away. Rigby on tenor plays melodic, logical, technically impressive phrases in his solo. Holober plays a brief solo with dense, attention-grabbing phrases. Then Johnson comes in and plays a solo where he shows off his impressive technique. Then tenor sax and trumpet improvise together; it’s like Rigby can’t stay out of the music for too long, he’s so full of ideas.
“Shift of Color” has flute and muted trumpet in unison on a slow, romantic theme. (Rigby has a full, pretty tone on flute with a hint of breathiness.) Holober plays an echo-y, wandering solo on the Fender Rhodes. After Holober’s solo, the flute and trumpet repeat the theme, ending the tune without any other solos.
Cleaver begins “The Sage” by himself, then Johnson joins him with some jaunty and bluesy phrases, adding some New Orleans feeling to the cut. Johnson, with Holober joining in, then plays a series of ascending phrases that trail off into the stratosphere. Rigby then comes in to join Johnson in unison on an insistent theme. Holober then plays a funky, distorted solo with stellar support from Cleaver. Rigby then plays a solo laced with funky and bluesy phrases, sounding a bit like Donny McCaslin, but less showy and more substantial. The tune ends with Rigby and Johnson in unison again.
“Tone Poem” has a slow theme played by Rigby on tenor sax. Things speed up with Rigby improvising some darting phrases with sprinting accompaniment from the rhythm section. Rigby develops some longer phrases and abruptly halts the cut with a repeated high note.
“Slip” starts with a fleet-fingered solo from Brown. Holober and Cleaver join in, Cleaver playing with subtlety all over the drum set. Brown and Holober then start an ostinato, and Johnson and Rigby (on soprano sax) play a slow theme in unison. The beat then becomes somewhat funky and swinging. Johnson solos briefly with a series of jabbing phrases, then Rigby takes over briefly, then Johnson comes back to join him. Holober joins the trumpet and sax and the playing becomes pretty collective. Johnson and Rigby return to the theme in unison to close the cut.
“The Archer” has an angular, mid-tempo rhythmic background against which Johnson and Rigby play a floating melody. Johnson then plays a growling, harsh solo while the rhythm section is anchor solid. Rigby’s solo on tenor sax is more straightforward but just as engaging. The cut then moves into a double-time section, with Rigby and Johnson playing a line in unison. Holober then plays an excellent, Chick Corea-ish solo. The bass and drums take over for a while and the floating theme returns, nicely contrasting with the racing rhythmic background. Brown improvises briefly, with Cleaver accompanying him, to close out the tune.
“Jealous Moon” has a slow, meter-less start, then Brown starts a funky bass line. Rigby and Johnson then play a slow, discreet melody in unison. Rigby plays a solo on soprano sax chock full of musical ideas. Holober then plays a thoughtful solo with equally thoughtful support from Brown and Cleaver.
The Sage is a recording of interesting, fresh, serious jazz. The tunes are not typical themes with a matching rhythm and harmony but more like tone poems each with a loosely connected, often contrasting, rhythmic background and an elusive harmonic structure. Somehow Rigby and his team take these loose materials and create something very cohesive and surprisingly accessible. The rhythm players couldn’t be better for this music: Holober is a fine soloist, and his adherence to the electric piano gives the recording a slightly retro, 70’s feel; Brown is rock solid, and Cleaver is consistently excellent, laying down rhythms that should clash with the melodies but somehow still work. Rigby is an inspiring saxophonist, possessing an apparently endless supply of musical ideas, communicating them with impressive but never showy technique and a strong, attractive tone. If you want a recording that’s more edgy than typical theme-solos-theme jazz but is still accessible and easy on the ears, you shouldn’t miss this recording.