When people talk about jazz meccas in the US, the cities that usually come up are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco; rarely does Philadelphia come up, which is surprising as there have been a number of great artists to emerge from that city including Pat Martino, Uri Caine and Mickey Roker. With a vibrant scene that includes such outstanding players as pianist Jim Ridl, trumpeter John Swana and pianist Orrin Evans, the Dreambox Media label has been devoted to bringing news from the Philadelphia front to a larger audience. With Retrospective/Debut
pianist Tom Lawton, educator and fixture on that scene, finally comes forward with a recording that combines the angularity of Thelonious Monk with a modern compositional edge that avoids the standard “head-solo-head” format, instead aiming for loftier territory.
With over two hours of compositions dating as early as ’74 and as recent as ’03, Lawton runs the gamut from straightforward ballad (“Titled”) to edgy, irregular-metered intensity (“Placebo Effect”). Breaking the programme up by interspersing solo, duo, trio, quartet and quintet tracks, Lawton writes often-intriguing compositions that can be deceptive. “Dig the Chartreuse” moves along with a tenor/trumpet frontline that recalls Blakey’s Jazz Messengers with a hard-swinging, but ultimately less in-your-face approach; “FCA” alternates between a straight-time, medium-tempo lope and more ambitious double-time passages. “The Norman D Invasion” uses a boppish head to trigger freer improvisations; Lawton, in his liner notes, refers to the term “free” in jazz as being “...much abused and misunderstood...” The free improvisations he refers to are not totally out of the ether; they are rooted in established “...melodic, rhythmic or even textural motifs...” The result is free music with a sense of purpose.
This would all be academic stuff if Lawton weren’t the pianist that he is. Quirky at times, but with the sense of abstraction that Hancock made so attractive during his time with Miles; he is an inventive soloist with a vivid imagination. On “Celestial Prism,” in duet with drummer Jim Miller, who is as much about colour and texture as he is about rhythm, Lawton reveals his roots in contemporary classical music as he creates a tone poem that may be essentially spontaneous, but ultimately tells a compelling story.
The rest of the album is filled with clever themes that are developed by the rich playing of everyone involved. Trumpeter John Swana is a standout with a smoky tone and penchant for extended phrasing. Saxophonist Ben Schachter leans towards alternating blustery long tones with oblique phrases that build into flurries of notes.
Retrospective/Debut is an appropriate title, as it represents a look back on Lawton’s twenty-five year career. A diverse affair that mixes post bop with free jazz that leans to the expressionistic, it is also an overdue introduction to Lawton, and highlights a group of fine Philadelphia players who are every bit as vital and independent-thinking as their counterparts in more considered jazz centres.
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Personnel: Tom Lawton (piano), Ben Schachter (saxophones), John Swana (trumpet), Lee Smith (bass), Jim Miller (drum), Norman David (clarinet)