Keeper of the Flame
Saxophonist and composer Tim Mayer leads an octet as well as other intimate configurations of first-call musicians including bassist Rodney Whitaker, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., and trombonist Michael Dease, with pianist Emmet Cohen sitting in for one track on Keeper of the Flame. The dates and places are a little confounding. Mayer’s last album as a leader was 2011’s Resilience and it appears that this album was apparently shelved at some point for whatever reason, given the recording dates of 2013 in New Jersey (although the press materials do not mention that). Also, Mayer is a former faculty member of Boston’s Berklee School of Music but many of the players here, Whitaker, Owens, Dease, and trumpet Anthony Stanco have roots in Michigan. The superb engineer, Jim Alfredson, mixed and mastered the album in Lansing this past January. Mayer, meanwhile, has traveled from Boston to Hawaii, the Canary Islands, Colombia, and is presently based in Xalapa, Mexico, having just earned his master’s degree at Universidad Veracruzana. So, although it’s a bit puzzling, the music is played with verve as you’d expect from these musicians and arranged beautifully as the octet arrangements come courtesy of Diego Rivera, whose recent solo release Indigenous, we covered on these pages this past January.
The stellar rhythm section, along with Whitaker and Owens, boasts Pianist Miki Hayama on all but the one track. Joining the front line of Mayer (tenor, soprano, alto flute), Stanco, and Dease are Adam Rongo (alto) and Tony Lustig (baritone). The album is a mix of originals, standards, and tributes (hence the title). The swinging opener “Big P” was written by the late Jimmy Heath for his bassist older brother Percy. Whitaker’s basslines do Percy proud but Mayer, a fellow saxophonist with Jimmy, honors a man he got to know prior to his passing in early 2020, with his moving tenor solo. Just two tracks in, they step away from the octet with Mayer’s beautiful soprano backed robustly be Owens and Whitaker as a trio for the enduring melody of “Bye, Bye Blackbird.” They strip down further with just Whitaker accompanying Mayer’s soulful tenor in a Ben Webster style on the ballad “Blame It on My Youth” with Whitaker delivering a remarkably lyrical bass solo. Sandwiched between the two is Cedar Walton’s “Hand in Glove” with the power of the full octet running on Jazz Messengers-like energy with brilliant spots from pianist Hayama, the leader, and Dease.
“Blues by Four” is one of two Mayer originals, a tune that would be equally at home in a quartet setting as it is in the large ensemble here. The tune was written for his two pet dogs and, as such, is appropriately swinging and uplifting. There’s an ominous opening to his other, “Get Organized,” which feature Cohen on piano and has a contemporary feel inspired directly by the Occupy Wall Street protests of the Great Recession but revealing tonality of the more recent foreboding times. Mayer delivers his most aggressive, rollicking, probing tenor solo, pushed by Owens Jr., whose drums also really imbue this one.
The clear standout though is Rivera’s creative octet arrangement and the octet’s blistering up-tempo take on Coltrane’s “Naima,” which the writer usually rendered as a sensitive ballad. Chances are you’ve never heard the tune performed this way. Mayer takes to the alto flute for Michael Dease’s colorful ballad, “Elusive,” with Rivera providing orchestral-like charts for the ensemble to back Mayer’s lush, delicate solo. The album closes with another tribute, a joyous explosive interpretation of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” with Mayer echoing Joe Henderson and the ensemble in full throttle as we also hear solos from Rongo on alto and naturally, Hayama on piano.
As Jazz Messenger alumnus and fellow tenorist Bill Pierce states in the liner notes multiple times, this rhythm section pushes and drives the ensemble, standing out exceptionally on every octet track. In the process, Mayer reminds us of the great ones we’ve lost while establishing his own emphatic stance of keeping their flames alive.