Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: The Shift - John Serry

Personnel: John Serry: piano; David O'Higgins: tenor and soprano saxophones; Mark Mondesir: drums; Sam Burgess: acoustic bass (tracks 2, 3, 7, 8); Mike Mondesir: electric bass (tracks 1, 4, 5, 6).
I have a particular motivation for reviewing John Serry’s new recording, The Shift.  When I was an undergraduate studying philosophy and English literature at the University of Rochester’s River Campus, I took some music lessons at the Eastman School of Music (including an improvisation class from the excellent saxophonist Paul McGinley), and I attended a lot of jazz performances there.  That experience led me to keep a close and fond eye on Eastman jazz grads, including folks like Bob Sheppard, Steve Kujala, Allen Vizzutti, and Walt Weiskopf, and, of more recent vintage, Ben Wendel, Ike Sturm, Ted Poor, and Maria Schneider.  John Serry is an Eastman grad who was finishing his degree at Eastman when I was at the River Campus and whom I’ve kept an eye out for since then, though his recorded output has been sparse (to put it mildly).  So I was excited to see a new Serry recording, particularly since it featured David O’Higgins, a saxophonist I’d heard of but whose playing I hadn’t yet heard.
The Shift starts out with “Pockets,” a lower mid-tempo, straightforward jazz tune with O’Higgins (on soprano) and Serry in unison on the pretty theme.  O’Higgins displays a lot of variety in his solo, changing up fast lines with slower, more thoughtful phrases; his approach and tone remind me of Nick Brignola’s soprano sax playing.  Serry’s expansive solo is fairly Chick Corea-ish, with a nice mix of chords and fast single lines.  This is strong opener for the recording.
“Bills” is a mid-tempo tune with a melody so agreeable that it could have been the theme to a 60’s TV show.  (Hey, there were some good ones.)   O’Higgins develops his soprano sax solo nicely, starting out relaxed and eventually turning up the heat; he occasionally makes a nod to Joe Farrell’s style in his playing.  Serry toys around with some tension in the phrases in his solo, showing absolute comfort with his composition’s changes.  Burgess shows off some impressive technique in his melodic bass solo.  O’Higgins and Serry trade fours with drummer Mondesir before ending the cut.
“The Influence” starts with Serry by himself, very much in Chick Corea mode.  O’Higgins then moves right into his improvisation on tenor sax, displaying a warm, pleasing tone (along the lines of Hank Mobley) with good control of his judiciously-used altissimo.  His phrasing on tenor evinces a Michael Brecker influence.  Serry plays a strongly-swinging solo, gently propelled by Mondesir and Burgess, then O’Higgins and Serry play the theme in unison, and Serry closes out the cut unaccompanied.
The title tune starts out with O’Higgins (on tenor) and Serry in unison on a repetitive, disjointed melody in a funky, brisk 9/4.  O’Higgins is in full Brecker mode in a very good but too-brief solo.  Serry gets into a good groove in his solo, weaving in spiraling, quicksilver phrases, also ending too quickly.  Serry and bassist Mondesir lock into a repeated phrase while drummer Mondesir contributes some tasty soloing.
O’Higgins’s warm sound on tenor is especially evident on “Off the Cuff,” a mid-tempo jazz waltz with a catchy, bittersweet melody.  O’Higgins’s solo is lyrical and also includes a few Brecker-isms.  Serry composes a new piece in his relaxed and intensely swinging solo.  Bassist Mondesir plays a brief electric bass solo, mainly hovering in the instrument’s upper register. 
“Down Down Down” is a driving, mid-tempo cut that starts with an improvised intro from Serry.  O’Higgins is back on soprano sax to play the dramatic theme, and he gets off a solo that is dynamic and emotional yet always well-controlled.  Serry’s solo mixes contemplation with some serious swing.  Serry and bassist Mondesir repeat a phrase while drummer Mondesir has a field day all over his drum set. 
“Holiday” begins with an elegant, unaccompanied piano introduction, which moves into a lower mid-tempo groove with the rest of the group joining in; one could imagine a couple dancing an elegant fox trot to this one.  O’Higgins starts right out with a soulful improvisation on tenor, after which Serry and Burgess play relaxed, solid solos.    
The recording ends with “The One,” with a laid-back, mid-tempo theme played by O’Higgins and Serry in unison.  O’Higgins again plays a warm-toned solo with slippery, Brecker-ish phrasing.  Serry plays a long, thoughtful solo, then Burgess contributes a bass solo that is logical and full-toned, a bit reminiscent of Ron Carter. 
The Shift affirms that Serry is an excellent composer and performer of straight-ahead, substantial jazz.  His tunes are so lyrical that they’re close to sounding like Broadway show tunes.  The performances from all the musicians involved are uniformly excellent.  About the only criticism that comes to mind is that there is a bit too much uniformity in the recording, with almost every tune being mid-tempo and starting out with a saxophone solo followed by a piano solo.  But these are very minor issues.  It’s an indication of the quality of The Shift that it puts me in mind of Chick Corea’s Friends and Three Quartets recordings, in both cases the exceptional pianist and composer teamed up with great rhythm players and a great saxophonist (Joe Farrell in the former case and Michael Brecker in the latter).  And I’m glad to have been introduced to O’Higgins’s playing; he was a great choice for Serry’s project, coming off as a softer-, warmer-toned aficionado of Michael Brecker (though certainly not a clone).  I’ll be checking out his recordings from here on.

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