The Rocco John Group

Don’t Wait Too Long
Coca Productions No #

At a time when recent jazz school grads clutter their debut CDs with hastily written, so-called original tunes, Rocco John Iacovone must be commended for waiting three decades into his career before releasing an entire disc of originals.

More meaningfully, the nine compositions of the New York-based alto and soprano saxophonist are without exception memorable, providing plenty of musical meat, sinew and bone on which the veteran reedist and his young combo members can gnaw. Besides showcasing hitherto unheralded meaningful notation, the session confirms the adage that working groups sound best. Iacovone, bassist Aaron Keane and percussionist Dalius Naujokaitis have worked as a trio since 1997; trumpeter Michael Irwin, who joined them in 2006 also plays with Naujokaitis in drummer Kenny Wollenson’s band.

With a Master’s degree in composition, Iacovone, who also teaches jazz and jazz history, studied with fellow altoist Lee Konitz and played lead alto in tenor saxophonist Sam Rivers’ orchestra in the 1970s. Someone who slides easily from “in” to “out” when improvising, the saxophonist encourages audiences to actively listen. Besides regular gigs around New York, he plays further out – geographically at least. Every year since 1999 he travels to Alaska for a summer-long gig with a local keyboardist/bassist.

Back to the Apple though, this nine-track CD could serve as an object lesson in how to set up a professional recording date. Including only one semi-ballad, Iacovone keeps the tempos perambulating between allegro and andante. At the same time there’s an unfussy, relaxed feel to the set – moderato not agitato. Most of the rhythmic thrust rests on Keane’s shoulders, or more appropriately in his fingers, as most compositions are propelled by his walking bass line. He can also contribute proper melancholy arco lines as he demonstrates on “Bicycle for 2” one of the program’s stand-outs.

Put together with swaggering double counterpoint from the horns, each man plays a line that complements rather than mirrors the others. The piece also features the saxophonist’s freest playing of the date, as he lets loose with a flurry of emphasized tones that rest lightly on top of on hard-stopped bass lines. Irwin’s tongue slurs, wedded to Naujokaitis’ subtle drum pinging elaborate the theme still further, which leads to an interval of fluid overblowing from Iacovone. Although these split tones appear to cut off the tune in slowing diminuendo, a vamping, double speed chase chorus recaps the head – and the bicycle rushes to the finish line so quickly that its tires may be singed.

This sort of Freebop call-and-response characterizes other tracks, two of which are reminiscent of Charles Mingus’ work, although only one is named for him. “Ming’s Things” is more buoyant than most of the bassist’s work, though it does work off the sort of repetitive bass head Mingus favored. Adumbrated by decorative coloration from the trumpeter and ruffs and rebounds from the drummer, Iacovone is able to let loose with flutter tonguing and lower register reed biting.

“Indigo Joe” – perhaps a cousin of “Killer Joe” – is the other tune with Mingus echoes, though Keane’s high register slap bass line and the subsequent break down into the musicians trading fours and eights confirms its Freebop lineage. Also on show, nonetheless, is side-slipping layering which bring the tune out of the 1950s and into the 21st Century.

Not everything is perfect however. Keane, for instance, could have done a little less walking and a little more string exploring to loosen the tempos. Plus, despite a raspy texture in one instance and a series of well-shaped triplets elsewhere, Irwin seems confined to accompaniment not assertive soloing. Sympathetic coloration is good, but throughout too often it appears as if he’s merely playing “follow the leader”. Maybe that’s one of the drawbacks of being the new boy.

Not really innovative, but original in its own way, Don’t Wait Too Long is still a noteworthy CD that zips by at a pace that belies its 66-minute length. It augurs for even better work next time out from all concerned. And it confirms that the saxophonist didn’t “wait too long” to record a program of originals – just the perfect time.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Overture 2. Gentilesse 3. Indigo Joe 4. Leticia 5. Ming’s Things 6. Bicycle for 2 7. Don’t Wait Too Long 8. Cursory Rhyme 9. Finale s

Personnel: Michael Irwin (trumpet); Rocco John Iacovone (alto saxophone); Aaron Keane (bass) and Dalius Naujokaitis (percussion and drums)