Usually any three-headed saxophone group comes together to honor a legend like Bird or Trane, notwithstanding bigger units such as the World Saxophone Quartet of Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir. Yet this unit, self-dubbed Altoizm, is making their own music with all seven compositions composed by the band members. The alto saxophonists are Greg Ward, Rajiv Halim, and Sharel Cassity backed by a rhythm section comprised on pianist Richard D. Johnson, acoustic bassist Jeremiah Hunt, and drummer Michael Piolet. Even though these three Chicago-based saxophonists are used to being featured soloists and, collectively, have released about a dozen albums as leaders, their chemistry with each other is palpable with more emphasis on unison and harmony playing than on traded solos.
Ward, Cassity, and Johnson have each written two tunes, and Halim adds “Bembe’s Kids,” a melodically complex tune that’s perhaps the first to simultaneously honor both the bembé rhythms native to sub-Saharan West Africa and the madcap animated comedy Bébé’s Kids. The theme is a nod to the way Black Americans create music in in often chaotic environment, which is conveyed in the bluesy, noirish tune. Ward, a prolific instrumentalist and composer, counts pioneering free jazz saxophonist Fred Anderson as a mentor and Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco as a colleague. There are few compositional commissions for which he’s not qualified. He’s composed classical music and jazz, scores for ballet and film, and concerti for symphony orchestra and chamber ensembles, as well as tunes for his own bands, Fitted Shards and Phonic Juggernaut. His 2010 debut with the former, South Side Story, was named Recording of the Year by the Chicago Tribune, and he’s presently a member of the jazz studies faculty at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.
Halim, like Ward, has collaborated regularly with the Jazz Institute of Chicago. As a young saxophonist, he found a mentor in iconic Chicago tenorist Von Freeman, frequently sitting in at Freeman’s long running jazz jam at the South Side’s New Apartment Lounge. Shortly after his high school graduation, he played Lollapalooza as a member of the hip-hop-fueled sonic cauldron that was Kids These Days. From that association, he befriended Chance the Rapper, appearing on the latter’s 2017 Grammy-winner Coloring Book.
Cassity has led The DIVA Jazz Orchestra from ’07 to ’14, and also released four albums as a leader (most recently 2018’s Evolve). She has played in bands led by Cyrus Chestnut, Nicholas Payton, and the late Jimmy Heath. She and Ward had met touring together a decade prior in New York, but she’d never played with Halim. Each in the studio working on individual projects, Cassity and Halim got to talking—then soon got to jamming. Feeling instant chemistry, Cassity suggested an “alto summit.” Halim quickly agreed, but they needed one more. It had to be Ward.
So, with Cassity’s idea and Ward’s rather de facto leadership, this band was born. Ward first composition here, “The Mighty Mayfly of Truth,” begins as a brooding piece with the three saxes playing in harmony, but as each takes a soaring solo, one can picture a glorious dawn slowly breaking. Ward also penned “John Cotton,” which features bluesy improvisational pianism from Johnson. Cassity’s “Thoroughbred,” introduces an original melody over the chord changes to Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” a likely one to be quoted in this kind of setting. As it goes out, the stretch with an eight-bar tag reminiscent of the late Jimmy Heath’s elegant codas. Cassity also brings the album opener,“Cedar Groove,” again referencing another giant, in Cedar Walton, the late Jazz Messenger’s “Fantasy in D.” Pianist Johnson delivers “The Time Has Come,” one of the more contemplative pieces with the three also in gorgeous harmony with each other, a respite from the furious blowing on Cassity’s preceding “Thoroughbred.” Conversely, his closer, “Last Minute,” is a showcase for Piolet and Hunt, one that pushes hard with the altos in flight above the stirring rhythms.
Again, alto summits are not all that rare but it is uncommon to find them bringing all original material played with together three saxophonists of this caliber. This is not a cutting session but one that merges the talents of three for a greater sum of the parts.
- Jim Hynes
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