Oscar Penas: Astronautus (2004)
The music of this group led by Oscar Penas is firmly rooted in the post-bop mainstream, yet it sounds fresh and distinctive, possessing a quality of lightness coupled with considerable drive. And Astronautus serves notice that a major new saxophonist has arrived. His name is Javier Vercher, and with any kind of luck, we'll be hearing a lot more from him.
Vercher has as distinctive a saxophone voice as I've heard lately. His tenor tone is full and round, with a warmth that somewhat recalls Hank Mobley or George Coleman. He navigates the extreme upper register of the horn with ease, and often contrasts high note forays with probes into the deeper registers of the horn. He distributes accents unpredictably, and he always generates a rolling, momentous swing. On soprano sax, he brings his lyrical side front-and-center.
Javier Vercher is the best, but not the only, reason to recommend this recording. Oscar Penas wrote six of the eight tunes, invoking the variety of setting and style common on many jazz albums today. There are swingers, an odd-time signature foray, a reflective ballad, and on the title tune, a cursory nod to fusion. And while the guitarist doesn't solo often, when he does, he's spare and to the point. Pianist Jose Medina generates the combination of urgency and reflection that characterizes all the music here, and by playing both acoustic and electric keyboards, he creates textural variety. The rhythm section is uncanny. Fernandez generates powerful swing, even as drummer Steimberg scatters cymbal ticks all around the beat, always serving the music. Together, they create an irresistible rhythmic tide.
Even given Fresh Sound's track record at recording the best young jazz musicians, Astronautus is something of a sleeper, and I would have preferred that the CD booklet shed some light on who these musicians are. The group was founded in Barcelona two years ago, and the disc was recorded there. But there's not much more to be gleaned from the (bilingual) notes. Regardless, I hope we'll hear more from them, particularly the very talented Vercher.
Track Listing: Astronautus, Aries, Il Superchopper Di Firenze, Adalab, Quasi-Blues, Fotografia, Sueno Perdido, Buenas Noches Por Favor, Quasi-Blues II.
Personnel: Oscar Penas, guitar; Javier Vercher, tenor and soprano saxes; Jose Medina, acoustic and electric pianos; German Fernandez, bass; Mariano Steimberg, drums. Tracks 3 and 9, add: Guim Garcia, alto sax. Track 9: Luisa Brito, bass.