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When young artists release their first album, it's always tempting to say they "show potential" or "are off to a good start," but those comments tend to be kindly veiled takes on "you get an A for effort, but should have waited a bit longer." Jonathan Saraga need not worry about having such pacifying comments thrown his way; the trumpeter's First Vision isn't the stuff of amateurs on the brink of musical maturity, it's a stand-up-and-take-notice offering.
Saraga, who already put himself on the map by winning the 2007 International Trumpet Guild Jazz Improvisation Competition and making the finals in the 2009 Carmine Caruso Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition, is only in his mid-twenties, but plays with the wisdom and maturity of veterans more than twice his age. His chops, lust for musical life and don't-box-me-into-a-stylistic-corner mentality make him seem like the musical offspring of trumpeters Dave Douglas
. He can woo the ears with mellow tones if he so desires, but he's more engaging when he cuts through the mix with clarion call power and decisive declamations.
While his trumpet playing deserves obvious praise, he should also get high marks on the composition side of the score card. Saraga's pieces aren't one-dimensional, cookie-cutter entities. He likes the idea of omnidirectional journeys with highs and lows. The band might drive a straight line for a while during his pieces, but every number has some detours with nooks and crannies to explore. "Rampant Teddy Bear," for example, seems like a high energy, cruise control number until drummer Gusten Rudolph takes charge and steers the ship off course. The album opening "Guidance" starts off as a search for direction, with bassist Jeff Dingler
feeling things out, but Saraga makes clear that he's the one giving the guidance when his firm solo footprint makes a mark. At times, Saraga's music can exhibit a wandering, nomadic, Klezmer-influenced sound that further cements the Douglas connection via that trumpeter's work with John Zorn
. However, that outfit take things to the zany nth degree and Saraga never crosses over the reckless abandon line.
Saraga's musical mates seem well-suited to his work throughout this journey. Alto saxophonist Colin Gordon is a simpatico front line partner, though he doesn't possess Saraga's sheer firepower, while Peter Park's measured guitar work provides a nice contrast. Dingler's bass work can be subdued or punchy, depending on the mood at hand, and Rudolph knows when to lead the charge or simply move into the shadows.
First Vision shouldn't be measured as a debut; it deserves to be judged only on its bountiful merits, which include stellar trumpet work, intriguing tunes and strong group chemistry.