This writer was initially puzzled to see trombonist Altin Sencalar on a small combo album by the award-winning trombonist Michael Dease but when viewing the album cover that has Dease cradling a baritone saxophone, I began to better understand this latest effort, Swing Low. We call Dease lots of things – composer, bandleader, educator, prolific, creative .and more but let’s be sure to call him a multi-instrumentalist going forward. This is not the first time Dease has played an instrument other than the trombone. His progression was from recorder (age 9), alto saxophone (age 11), tenor saxophone (age 14), trumpet (age 15), and trombone (age 17). Now at age 41 he wants to return to his youthful days as he’s again reaching for a new instrument to play while continuing to stay in on the low end. The baritone saxophone is rarely in the hands of a bandleader and naturally jazz lovers point to the likes of Gerry Mulligan, Pepper Adams, Ronnie Cuber, and a few others.
Dease is coming off one of his most creative albums, issued earlier this year and covered here – On the Other Side – The Music of Gregg Hill, his only non-Posi-tone release in recent years. But now he’s back on the label with their stalwart rhythm section of pianist Art Hirahara, bassist Boris Kozlov, and drummer Rudy Royston. His frontliner on the high end is the fiery trumpeter from Artemis, Ingrid Jensen, who has wowed audiences at this year’s Newport and D.C, Jazz Festivals as a member of Orrin Evans’ quintet. Oh, and Altin Sencalar joins on three tracks. Dease has three originals among these eleven, also covering tunes from fellow trombonists Melba Liston and Julian Preister, pianists Renee Rosnes and Bill Cunliffe, and from two youngsters – guitarist Ben Turner and clarinetist Virginia MacDonald. Two standards bookend the program.
Opening is “Dancing in the Dark,” first heard by Dease, (like so many of us) on Charlie Parker with Strings but inspired here by the duo version recorded by the husband-and-wife pianist team of Renee Rosnes and Bill Charlap. The tune swings with Dease trading lines playfully with Jensen, each seemingly trying to outdo each other as she reaches higher each time, he goes even lower. The first original is the gliding “Don’t Look Back,” with its uplifting melody that gives way to his solo and well as impressive turns from Jensen and Hirahara. The momentum lags a bit in the last few choruses perhaps in line with Dease’s liner notes that suggest one leave if your partner doesn’t reciprocate your love. “Appreciation” is from recent Temple and Michigan State Jazz Studies graduate, Philadelphian guitarist Ben Turner. This highly melodic tune appealed to Dease due to its NOLA vibe and “Poinciana” groove. Jensen’s in peak form lyrically on this one as the swinging Hirahara while Dease stays relatively restrained.
Dease’s “Phibe’s Revenge” is a tense tug-of-war between horror film soundscapes and variations of the blues. Royston gets in his licks as the combo takes it to an explosive climax. The standout “Just Waiting” is from the criminally underappreciated female Black trombonist Melba Liston, who has impeccable history with Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, and later in her career, Randy Weston. There’s plenty of tension in this ballad too, with its alternating dark and brighter colors, it’s perhaps the best contrast between the two lead instruments in the album. Dease tapped pianist and composer Bill Cunliffe to write “Melancholia” specifically for this project. Not surprisingly, given all the time Cunliffe invests in writing film scores, this has a bit of that feel but moves along more briskly than the title would suggest; in fact, it downright swings. Rosnes’ “Galapagos” gives Dease a chance to blow freely toward the end of piece and fits comfortably into Jensen’s wheelhouse as the pianist leads the all-female super group Artemis of which Jensen is a charter member. Sencalar augments the quintet here as they present a formidable three-horn front line, terrific in the ensemble lines and inspiring invigorating turns from Hirahara, Jensen, Royston, and of course, the leader.
“New Blues” is one Dease penned twenty years ago and includes Sencalar who follows Dease’s potent solo with a fervent one of his own. Jensen lifts off, going stratospheric as this terrific cut, according to Dease, had the spirit of Elvin Jones in the room. Canadian clarinetist Virginia MacDonald plays in Dease’s regular band, making a star appearance on the aforementioned On the Other Side – The Music of Gregg Hill. Instead, Dease represents her a composer here where the quintet renders her gorgeous ballad, which could be an alternate album title, “Up High, Down Low.” “Julian’s Tune” is from the recently ailing 88-year-old trombonist Julian Preister, perhaps the last living elder of the instrument. It’s an early, 1960 vintage bebop flavored tune, filled with rapid bursts that defined Preister’s style and led to his association with Herbie Hancock in Mwandishi. Naturally, it also calls for a trombone and Sencalar answers the call. The closing chestnut, Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” is a feast for lovers of the low-end sound as Dease and Kozlov take it as a duet, proving their instruments can be as melodic as any. The album is another winner for the ever-consistent Dease who certainly sounds like no rookie on the baritone sax.
- Jim Hynes
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