A well kept secret for over 40 years, Willie Akins cut his jazz teeth in New York playing with such jazz giants as Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane at Mintons and Small's Paradise. Working out of St. Louis for the last several years, the Catalyst label has given Mr. Akins his first crack at an album of his own and he takes full advantage of it. The lessons learned during his 40 years are evident as he and his regular quartet ferry the listener through a play list of eleven tunes for over an hour's of exciting and inventive sax playing.
Alima Kicking things off with one of his compositions, a rousing blues based "Theme for Oliver", Akins touches all the bases during this session. The Coltrane influence is apparent, especially the way he recalls Coltrane's special way with ballads on "Alima", which means peace and love and is the nom de plume of Akins poetess wife, Sandy Akins. The sax playing is impressionistic and introspective without indulging in Coltrane's "sheets of sounds" technique. Pianist Simon Rowe and bassist Willem von Hombracht engage in a serious conversation on this the longest track on the set at almost eight minutes. Akins is equally at home with the swinging bop on Jimmy Heath's classic "C.T.A". Simon Rowe shows some significant chops on piano and Monetz Coleman's drum breaks help to take the work out of playing. "You Taught My Heart to Sing" offers another excellent example of the saxophonists' relaxed approach to improvising. Never during this entire album does he succumb to the temptation to screech or employ any other extraneous cacophony. His tone stays pure and his fingering produces sounds which enthrall and keep one's attention.
To his credit, Atkins has brought in the members of his regular quartet, not trying to embellish the proceedings by corralling well known hired guns. Simon Rowe on piano is a major factor in the success of the album. On some tunes, he opens laying down a harmonic pattern for Akins' sax which usually cruises in after a few bars. As Akins solos, Rowe piano's is proving some imaginative comping underneath. Von Hombracht and Montez Coleman keep matters moving in both support and solo roles. Coleman peppering rim shots come in just at the right time as a punctuation point.
Hopefully, Alima is the start of many albums this group Perhaps the next one will reveal Jimmy Forrest's influence on Akins as it did when Akins backed Jeanne Trevor on another recent Catalyst release. Highly recommended.
Tracks:Theme for Oliver; Just One More Chance; Alima; C.T.A.; Summertime; Hey Baby; Beatrice; You Taught My Heart to Sing; Time Was; Estate; Pretty Eyes
Personnel: Willie Akins - Tenor and Soprano Saxophones; Simon Rowe - Piano; Willem von Hombracht - bass; Montez Coleman - Drums