Power From the Air
Power From the Air is the third album for organist Brian Charette with his primarily woodwind sextet, the most albums he has ever made with one group. Consider however that this lineup has three new players from the previous The Question That Drives Us although the configuration remains consistent. Charette says this, “…This is the third recording of this ensemble and I feel like we are really maturing as a band. The pieces are funky and hypnotic with pretty wind ensemble part writing and a Hammond B3 rhythm section.” The ten selections include eight originals and two covers. Charette is joined in his organ sextette (note his change from the conventional ‘sextet’) by returning members Itai Kriss (flute) and Mike Dirubbo (alto sax) as well as new members Kenny Brooks (tenor sax), Karel Ruzicka (bass clarinet) and Brian Fishler (drums).
Readers of these pages should be somewhat familiar with Charette as a vital sideman on the Posi-Tone releases we covered from Doug Webb and Farrell Newton. Charette also has albums on that label as a leader and some may also realize that he has recorded with the Vivino Brothers as well as Joni Mitchell and Chaka Chan. In the jazz idiom, he records with many artists including NEA Jazz Master George Coleman. All three organ sextette as well as other albums where he is a leader appear on the Steeplechase label, six in total.
Mostly we tend to lump the Hammond B-3 players into a soul-jazz-blues mode and although Charette clearly shines in that vein, this configuration allows for plenty of horn-led ensemble playing as well as plenty of room for the players to stretch out on solos. Blending the flute and the bass clarinet with the two saxes creates nuances in sound and interesting harmonics. Th album begins with “Fried Birds,” an original, briskly rendered with Kriss’s flute in conversation with first the alto and then bass clarinet as the organ swells behind them. Brooks then joins in for a more extended tenor solo followed by Kriss and Charette while the rhythm section (Charette and Fishler) hold down the bottom. The tune could just easily be titled “Free Birds” as soloists go freely unencumbered, setting the stage for what follows.
“As If to Day” takes the tempo down a notch with the ensemble in ostinato before Charette breaks out with a statement echoed by the alto, bass clarinet, flute, and tenor as he gently comps behind them. They then turn to the sultry standard “Harlem Nocturne,” composed by Earle Hagan in 1939 while he was an arranger with the Ray Noble Orchestra. The tune has long been a favorite with vocal groups and saxophonists, but this version is essentially a showcase for Charette on the B3 in a church organ mode as the woodwinds principally add the harmonic backdrop. Fishler kicks off the original “Silver Lining” and gets plenty of space, staying steady behind each of the woodwinds who freely solo as the leader comps but joins them in the melody when they rejoin the theme. Kriss bursts out with any especially perky turn near the end of the piece before yielding to Fishler and yet another organ-fueled climax.
“Elephant Memory” resembles the opener although its initial brisk tempo recedes a bit to allow Kriss to once again shimmer on flute. Not to be outdone, Dirubbo respond to her statement as do Brooks and Ruzicka in robust fashion. Charette’s contributions are as varied and unpredictable as those of his sidemen. Their solos often turn to ensemble parts when one least expects them to. Similarly, Charette can provide subtle backing or steady comping but quickly step forward with his own melodic solo at an unexpected moment in the piece. Yet, the pieces are well constructed, the playing is consistently purposeful and interconnected. That’s the beauty of it – the listener can often be surprised but the musicians are navigating a well-charted course.
The title track features a gorgeous ensemble melody line and crisp solos from each member, yet another classic example of well weaved textures. The standard “Cherokee,” stretched to almost 14 minutes, has Charette all over his instrument in a lengthy excursion more in keeping with the bluesy kind of B3 playing associated with such masters as Dr. Lonnie Smith before he yields to crisp declarations from each of the woodwinds, the earthy voice of Kuzicka’s bass clarinet and Brooks’ gutbucket tenor being especially notable. “Want” goes in a couple of directions from simmering quiet to heated boils and flowing lines merge with syncopated passages over an underlying blues current, conducive to the saxes that bring the intensity. “Frenzy” seems to relate mostly to Charette’s sprightly use of seldom played high register notes that Dirubbo and Brooks counter in vigorous runs. Yes, it does get a bit blurred and frenetic when all play at once, hence the title. Finally, “Low Tide” captures each member embellishing the simple theme with perhaps their most emphatically stated sequences, almost as if they realize this is their last say over the tricky start-stop rhythm pattern.
Credit Charette for surrounding the Hammond B3 sound with a much lusher treatment than the usual. The ensemble meshes the layers and harmonics in ways we’ve not typically heard from an organ led unit, unless of course we point to his first two sextette albums.
- Jim Hynes