This Is Me, This Is Us
Outside In Music
There’s a new vibraphonist on the scene not named Joel Ross. Indeed, hailing from Houston, TX we have the young Jalen Baker, also a composer of merit that belies his youthful stature with his auspicious debut This Is Me, This Is Us. Baker has already earned the respect of the well-regarded drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., who produced the album and fellow vibraphonist Warren Wolf, who wrote the liner notes. The album is a series of reflective compositions borne out of the pandemic and thereby covering the gamut from depression, heartbreak, racism, career disappointments, success, triumph, and healing. Music is often called a healing force, so let’s put the emphasis on the latter.
Although Owens Jr. does not play on the album, he recruited Baker into his band and so the two have considerable touring history. Owens Jr. relates that Baker spent some time with Billy Childs developing his compositional skills, which are now in full bloom on this release. The musicians hail from both Texas and New York as it was apparently important for Baker to tap mostly his “home boys” and reflect the sound of his hometown on the record. As a result, even with the vibes in the lead role, Baker crafts a much different sound than that of Ross or Wolf, or for that matter, the elder Joe Chambers who put out an impressive vibes effort on Blue Note earlier this year.
“So Help Me God” begins, as the vibes are cushioned by a string quartet in a tune inspired by the Modern Jazz Quartet, not overly complex and imbued by trumpeter Giveton Gelin as each lead voice doubles the refrain. Here the rhythm section of pianist Paul Cornish, drummer Gavin Moolchan, and bassist Gabriel Godoy are restrained while they have ample opportunity to be more aggressive in other selections, such as the following “Don’t Shoot,” a lengthy, dramatic piece also colored by the strings, that builds in intensity, and “Healing,” which brings plenty of harmonic intrigue with solos from Baker, Gelin, and Cornish.
“Patience” sees the string quartet return and they set the melody before the vibes and trumpet enter, a rather mature approach for a young composer. It’s another with a calm, somewhat melancholic opening but remains in an emphatically slow ballad pace that gently builds toward the end, allowing the listener to focus on nuances and appreciate the deep beauty in both Baker and Gelin’s leading statements. “We Regret to Inform You” picks up the tempo as Baker is in mallet pounding mode, pushed by the rhythm section, with some riveting work on the traps by Moolchan. “Praise” has a more contemporary air than “Patience,” but a similar kind of restraint that’s prayer-like in focus, making space for thoughtful solos from the leader and Cornish.
“Faith” pares down to just a trio of vibes, bass, and drums which gives Baker a chance to show his comping skills as the only chordal player while revealing tight synergy between the three Texans, with Moolchan deftly steering the trio in this mid-tempo reflective piece. “Obey/Disobey” is yet another heartfelt piece, likely inspired on the theme of social justice, that features some nice interplay between Baker and Cornish, with many single vibraphone notes reverberating beautifully. The close is a message of hope in a tune heard often lately, Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today.”
Yes, Jalen Baker has made mostly a quiet, reflective album but his star is already burning very brightly. He’s one to watch.
- Jim Hynes
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