As soon as we mention the Deer Head Inn, the jazz readers of these pages will realize that the Horizons Quartet are local to this writer. Yet, keep in mind that the venue is home to many reputable musicians and a gig location for many prominent NYC-based musicians. After all, NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman calls it home. The owner of this record label (begun in 1973 for Dave Liebman’s Open Sky) and the bassist for the quartet, octogenarian Gene Perla, has played alongside Sarah Vaughan, Jimmy Cobb and Miles Davis, and with Liebman on Elvin Jones’ classic Live at the Lighthouse. The drummer, Byron Landham, has played with Betty Carter, Houston Person, and fellow Philly native Joey DeFrancesco. Yet this is the first recording together for the rhythm tandem. That brings us to the two younger co-founders, saxophonist Dan Wilkins and pianist James Collins. Wilkins, though not yet 30, composed all eight selections on this self-titled debut, and his father, the pianist Skip Wilkins, a favorite son of the Deer Head Inn, is also a longtime professor of music at nearby Lafayette College. Collins has long been inspired by Landham, even before studying at Temple University where the drummer is on faculty. He and Wilkins have been gigging in and around Philadelphia since 2015.
This is a straight-ahead session, steeped in beautiful, lyrical tonality. “Spiraling” begins with Wilkins’ full-bodied soprano set against Landham’s crashing cymbals, Perla’s steady propulsion, and Collins’ piano evoking Trane’s take on “Afro Blue.” It evolves as a showcase for Wilkins’ many runs and solos from each member. His soprano continues to soar expressively on “The Blade’s Proposition,” a moodier, more atmospheric piece that also builds to some intense moments, with Collins on Fender Rhodes setting him off against a subtle electric sound palette. “Marionettes” steps down further into a noirish feel of a late-night club with Collins’ playing sensitively and beautifully underneath Wilkins’ who reaches every note and more on the tenor this time.
Wilkins returns to soprano on “Benediction of the Moon,” an expansive piece bearing one of the album’s more indelible themes and more Liebman-inspired soprano excursions. “Billows” is an even more haunting ballad than “Marionettes,” also delivered via Wilkins’ rich, purely toned soprano that leaves some notes seemingly suspended in air minutes on end. Perla adds his lyrical plucking while Collins and Landham play with remarkable restraint, the former offering some glistening passages midway through. The calm sets the stage for the bop fueled “Get to the Point,” where Wilkins goes from his normal smooth into aggressive mode on the soprano following a vibrant piano intro from Collins. “Gaia’s Blessing” is highly melodic, rendered with tenor over Rhodes while the closer, “Kindling of the Phoenix” has Collins in some of his most shimmering moments, accompanying Wilkins’ tenor on the acoustic piano. A piece like this will remind of those great albums from the late ‘50’s when Red Garland accompanied John Coltrane. Yet, other pieces like “Billows,” “Benediction of the Moon” and “The Blade’s Proposition” carry a more contemporary feel. That’s appropriate given the two generations of musicians in the quartet. They find a fine balance and deliver highly expressive statements on this auspicious debut.
- Jim Hynes
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