Andrew Beals: Gravy Train
For half a century, saxophonists have gravitated toward Hammond B3-led bands to hone their chops. The demands of the "chitlin' circuit" combined with those burnin' B3 lines create the perfect musical training ground. Consequently, some of the sagest advice for an aspiring musician is simply, "If you want to really learn your instrument go play with a B3."
One of the best to play with was "The Capt'n," Brother Jack McDuff, and throughout his long career he shared the stage and studio with a who's who of soulful saxmen. This impressive roster includes Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons, Joe Henderson, Joe Lovano and the debuting band leader, Andrew Beals.
During the last fourteen years of McDuff's life, both on the road and in the studio, Beals was the alto man he turned to. You can hear his horn on many McDuff classics including his final studio date, Brotherly Love (Concord Records, 2001), a session also featuring guitarist Pat Martino and McDuff protege Joey DeFrancesco. Steeped in the blues and laced with funk, Beals' soulful sax sound is likewise present on The Gravy Train.
Playing a set of tunes composed primarily of originals, Beals has chosen to break out of the B3-based mold, and along with producer and drummer Neal Smith, to construct a band that showcases his spirit. Here, Beals' saxophone is in the context of a killer quartet that provides a forum for him to stretch out and revel in new found freedom. Pianist Keith Saunders and bassist Mike McGuirk round out this fine foursome.
A New York City staple for the last 20-plus years, and a leader in his own right of the intensely swinging NY HardBop Quintet, Saunders is Beals' soul mate on this journey. With creds including study with Horace Silver, Saunders is most capable of adding short shots of deliciously funky juice or joining Beals for hard bopping flights of fancy. Their communion is one of many factors that sets The Gravy Train apart from the scores of releases that are bleak exhibitions of hollow technique.
While Beals and Saunders combine to form this music's soul and psyche, its heart lies in the rhythm section. Smith is well known for his new brand of textural modern swing as well as a production style that allows for a broad open sound. He joins with McGuirk, a great young musician from the world renowned North Texas State jazz program. A winner of the prestigious International Society of Bassists jazz competition, McGuirk is a much in demand NYC bassist who straddles jazz genres. He has performed and recorded with musicians as varied as saxophonist David Liebman and guitarist John Abercrombie.
The session kicks off with "Tippin' Point," an apt introduction allowing each musician to strut some of his improvisational abilities. Here, Beals shows that he is in no hurry, and the thoughtful length of his melodic lines quickly characterizes him as a player who both thinks and feels his phrases. Saunders and McGuirk are likewise attentive but take things in their own different directions, while Smith establishes himself as a textural player on this Beals original.
"Allegra" explores a relaxing melodic line from atop a delicate Latin rhythm. Alto states the melody and is center stage for this easy going musical groove, before the Asian tinged "Yamazaki" begins. Here Beals layers his alto and soprano horns and their combined timbres produce an exotic mood that is set off by a percussive piano. A bit of funkiness arrives and intriguingly contemporizes the feel reflecting the marriage of urbanity to Asian culture.
"Velvet Figurine" is yet another superb composition, and serves as a smooth showcase for this quartet's expressive collective voice. It is followed by the lovely standard, "The Night We Called It A Day," a ballad reworked on tenor and vibraphone in a classic performance by two of the greatest, John Coltrane and Milt Jackson. Beals opens up his alto and both Saunders and McGuirk elegantly display their own emotive touch for a tender tip of their hats to this duo, against a gorgeously sensual cymbal backdrop.
"Encantada" lives up to its Spanish moniker as it enchants by virtue of a deft pairing of bass clarinet and bowed bass. This combination sings with deep resonance adding a dark beautiful foundation to this lovely layered piece completed with a small dose of Latin blush. The title cut may be an allusion to how a dexterous alto line can help pay the bills, but the gravy on this train is not thick and heavy; it goes down easy. This delicate but spirited touch is paralleled by Saunders' and McGuirk's communicative comments on the subject, as they add a savory spice to the mix making for a well thought out development to "The Gravy Train."
"Countdown" is full speed ahead bop that pays additional homage to Coltrane's well known and exceedingly difficult burner. A reconfiguration of trumpeter Miles Davis' composition "Tune Up," "Countdown" was one of the first to use Coltrane's trademark major third chord changes. Beginning with a bass thematic countdown that builds tension toward a Beals and Saunders blast off, both soloists impress with their alacrity and tonal centeredness. Hearing this piece on alto brings to mind Kenny Garrett's version but here Saunders takes off first with bass and drums providing the fuel. Beals' alto meets with piano in the stratosphere for a wonderful dual rocket restyling.
"Ann's Lament" is a perfectly placed and welcome bluesy respite. Beals' lusciously long lines, unhurried pace and rich tone exquisitely evoke this lady's mournful state of mind. Ann remains somber, despite a brief encounter with Saunders' cheerful piano.
The album closes with the gloriously exotic "Nature Boy." Each time Beals restates this haunting melody on soprano it is from a different perspective. Based on a Yiddish song entitled "Shvayg Mayn Harts" (Be Still, My Heart), and written by the mercurial freegan, Eden Abhez, its roots are exposed in wonderfully melodic fashion. Beals maintains the original mystery of the tune within the context of this talented quartet to complete an hour plus program of soulfully textured music.
Tracks: Tippin' Point; Allegra; Yamazaki; Velvet Figurine; The Night We Called A Day; Encantada; The Gravy Train; Countdown; Ann's Lament; Nature Boy.
Personnel: Andrew Beals: alto and soprano saxophone, bass clarinet, flute; Mike McGuirk: bass; Keith Saunders: piano; Neal Smith: drums.