(Top photo by Michael Wilson)
Jazz musicians never seem to stop working. Whether as leaders, sidemen, or as part of a “supergroup,” the notes never seem to stop as the jazz musicians move from project to project. Within these four musicians come four records, all recorded and released in the past year (except for Blade’s which is from the late 90’s).
Joshua Rodman (saxophone), Brad Mehldau (piano), Christian McBride (bass), and Brian Blade (drums) are part of the early 90’s post “Young Lions” jazz era, essentially making them elders for the current generation. The four of them recorded together for the first time 26 years ago. Now they return on Round Again (Nonesuch), using the skills they’ve acquired as leaders to establish easy chemistry and grooves that can only come from experience. The band sounds as comfortable as a well worn pair of shoes.
Redman’s saxophone is focused and lyrical, sounding almost effortless within the context of this band, a testament to the band’s skill set. And while this is technically his project, Redman has no trouble leaving plenty of room for his band mates to shine. The themes are presented crisply without coming off as stiff, and everything else just swings from there.
Mehldau’s Suite: April 2020 (Nonesuch) is the most current in this group of releases, geared specifically around the effects of COVID-19 in the musician’s turbulent world. Through his playing, Mehldau expresses the irritation, confusion and anxieties associated with having his life turned upside down by the pandemic, which has kept most musicians off the road since March. His sound is earnest and longing, both in his own compositions and in the three poignant covers he adds. His phrasing almost comes off more like a singer than a pianist, while his left hand punches out interesting chord changes to add to the excitement.
McBride brings the groove like nobody’s business while paying tribute to jazz legends Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery, and Oliver Nelson. The music’s accessibility is a great draw, but the true wonder takes place further within, where McBride and his band (particularly guitarist Mark Whitfield and organist Joey DeFrancesco) tear originals and standards completely asunder, making the pieces very much their own. To say nothing of McBride’s thunderous bottom end, which hits like a pleasant gut punch. For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver (Mack Avenue) is more than good jazz. This is fun!
Like Mehldau, Blade’s Fellowship (Blue Note) is a study in introspection. Of all instrumentalists, drummers probably have to work the hardest at not letting their sound overwhelm the music. Blade had no issues here, even as he periodically turns his kit into a lead instrument. It’s proficiency without ham-handedness, right where any good drummer should be. The music is extremely tasteful, often with the feel of an orchestra, helping to take the listener to the most peaceful places. It has the most tonal colors of all the records here (often carried nicely by guitarist Jeff Parker) , but Blades’s playing is a whip-smart constant.
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