Ben Allison / Paul Smoker / Ken Filiano / Damon Short / Fred Hess / Tom Christensen / Charles Pillow / Satoshi TakeishiMay 5, 2003
Playscape PSR #JJ111601
Knowing you limitations and working within them can sometimes be a preferable method of creativity than letting your reach exceed your grasp. At least that’s what becomes clear listening to these two quartet discs, led by fine, but under-celebrated tenor saxophonists.
Denver-based Fred Hess, coordinator of jazz studies at Metropolitan Sate College, is the epitome of the journeyman reedman. Initially influenced by Lester Young, he modesty lists his “current saxophone heroes” as Joe Lovano, Rick Margitza, Bob Berg, Michael Brecker and the much younger Chris Potter. His background, which includes the formation of the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble with trumpeter Ron Miles, as well as work with everyone from ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker, mainstream bassist Ray Brown and avant trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, is easily the equivalent of those reedists. Plus his talents on tenor saxophone are equal if not superior to some of his “heroes”.
EXTENDED FAMILY itself is a sparkling freebop session. Not only did Hess, winner of the Julius Hemphill award for composition in 2000, write all the sprightly tunes, but he also gathered a non-pareil, cross-country group to play them. Rochester, N.Y.-based trumpeter Paul Smoker has made his mark with sonic explorers including multi-woodwind masters Anthony Braxton and Vinny Golia. New York bassist Ken Filiano is not only a longtime Golia associate, but he’s backed up other inside-outside players like trombonist Steve Swell and guitarist Dom Minasi. Drummer Damon Short holds a similar position as Mr. Inside/Outside in his hometown of Chicago.
With a résumé just as impressive as Hess’s, New York-based Tom Christensen, who plays soprano and tenor saxophones, wood flute and English horn on PATHS, has put in time in the bands of Maria Schneider and Toshiko Akiyoshi among others and even played behind Lovano. Big Apple pros, his sidemen are just as impressive as Hess’s and better known. Second reedist Charles Pillow, who struts his stuff on sopranino, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet and alto flute, has been a member of Woody Herman’s Thundering Herd, Al Hirt’s Big Band and a back-up musician for Paul Simon. Bassist Ben Allison, who leads is own bands is also part of the highly praised Jazz Composers Collective. Percussionist Satoshi Takeishi has performed with pianist Eliane Elias, flutist Herbie Mann and in cellist Erik Frieldlander’s Topaz.
Christensen, however, seems intent on tackling everything from Miles Davis’ “Nardis” to the standard “You’re My Everything” on the 12 selections on his disc. All of the other tunes are his and the result mixes straightahead jazz with intimations of New Age, World music and even minimalist and Dadaesque sounds. Eclecticism without experimentation doesn’t really gel, so that PATHS, while pleasant, at six seconds shorter than EXTENDED FAMILY, ends ups sounding much, much longer
Ornette Coleman’s compositions would seem to have affected Hess. “Cathy’s Taffy”, for instance is a bouncy, happy line featuring the sax man and trumpeter dancing in and out of each other’s way. Hess, who has extensive playing time with the somewhat melancholic Ron Miles, may have been spurred to more levity by Smoker, whose muted style sometimes resembles a weird combination of Don Cherry and Joe Wilder. The brassman is also able to construct variations at hummingbird speed, and on this finger- snapper Filiano matches him with some frisky pizz work, Short rolls in with beat accents and Hess reiterates the theme in mid-range.
Coleman’s — and by extension Hess’s — more sombre side, expressed in a stately bowed bass intro and some high-pitched, alto-range tenor lines, characterizes “Boson”, at nearly 11 minutes the longest track on the disc. Named after a subatomic particle, it features choked, half-valve effects from Smoker accompanied, andante, first only by walking bass, then by drums and arco bull fiddle. In contrast Hess’s tone is pretty legato, at least those time he isn’t honking like Texas tenor Booker Ervin or producing kazoo-like buzzing overtones.
Inversely, “Mr. & Mrs. Clef Take A Vacation” features Smoker’s muted plunger work, as if he was a modern-day Cootie Williams. The most intentionally far-out piece, it also features squeaks, squawks and multiphonics from Hess — let’s see Brecker or Margitza do that — as Filiano provides the undercurrent with powerful bowing and Short exercises his bass drum pedal.
Short may have been originally inspired by Gene Krupa, but you’ll find no traces of the Swing Era gum chewer in his percussion feature. “High St.”, which the saxman wrote for him. Expressing unforced weightlessness, he barely hits the cymbals and caresses the snare during his solo. Then again, this tune may be the only one named for a drummer that also features a cappella mid-range tenor sax playing and unaccompanied plunger mute sounds.
In short, by being humble and undemanding and almost undervaluing his talents, Hess and his quartet members have created a fine, individualistic statement.
PATHS is just as pleasant as the other quartet CD, but there seems to be no prevailing challenge within it. Three one-minute-or-shorter improv tracks, named for poems by Northern California hippie icon Richard Brautigan, emphasize this. The band’s improv idea of avant-garde effects seem to involve nonsense dialogue and the sort of pseudo-outside, off-kilter noises that were probably tossed out for amusement in the big bands with which Christensen played.
This same sort of taunt, within-a-blues progression appears on “Footnote”, with Christensen on soprano saxophone and Pillow on sopranino sax trilling a bit too nasally. Meantime Takeishi is producing conga-drum-like tones and Allison offers strong bass thumps. Finally the theme gets reprised as a rondo.
“Longing, Hoping, Longing” opens with some interesting West Coast Jazz-like polyphony with tenor saxophone matched with Pillow’s bass clarinet. Those clarinet tones provide a fine cushion for Christensen’s work, at least until the percussionist gets a
little too busy with his effects which include maracas-like shakes and Guiro-like scratches. No doubt this versatility could get these players jobs in any situation, but their identity as more than journeymen doesn’t come through here.
Nadir is probably reached on “Sam Was Born”, a tender salute to the leader’s nephew. Trouble is. except for trying to figure out how Allison gets guitar-strumming accompaniment from his bass, the overall effect is strictly limp New Age. Christensen’s wood flute and Pillow’s alto flute unite to provide a sound like a couple of piping banshees, while the percussion appears to introduce a steel drum to the proceedings.
Christensen’s English horn adds a touch of light, double-reed uniqueness to a couple of tracks. Still the pastoral accompaniment provided on these tracks by bass flute or bass clarinet played by Andrew Sterman, is reminiscent of a formal string section dampening the improvisational vitality. Considering Sterman is a veteran woodwind players for the Philip Glass Ensemble — he played on the composer’s opera, “Einstein on the Beach” — his classical-style reading may have been intentional.
It’s hard to fault Christensen for good ideas and good intentions, and PATHS is undoubtedly agreeable enough. Perhaps he — and his quartet — will do better next time out. Maybe they should also listen to Hess’s CD.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Extended: 1. Good Question 2. Don’t Talk About It 3. Cathy’s Taffy 4. Mr. & Mrs. Clef Take A Vacation 5. Extended Family 6. High Street 7. Boson 8. Kyudo For Ken
Personnel: Extended: Paul Smoker (trumpet); Fred Hess (tenor saxophone); Ken Filiano (bass); Damon Short (drums)
Track Listing: Paths: 1. Just To Play 2. Dude* 3. Footnote 4. Negative Clank 5. Nostalgia^ 6. Iquique 7. Propelled by Portals 8. You’re My Everything 9. Longing Hoping Longing 10. Critical Can Opener 11. Nardis 12. Sam Was Born
Personnel: Paths: Tom Christensen (soprano and tenor saxophones, wood flute, English horn); Charles Pillow (sopranino, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto flute); Andrew Sterman (bass flute*, bass clarinet ^); Ben Allison (bass); Satoshi Takeishi (drums)