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With The Street Above the Underground London-based saxophonist Jean Toussaint seems to be seeking to emulate T.S.Monk’s recent success in fusing jazz with smooth sounds and pop elements and coming up with something that sounds nothing like Kenny G. Like Monk’s excellent 1999 release Crosstalk, Toussaint’s music has an urbane, polished feel, but has far too much bite to be described as ‘smooth jazz’. Indeed, while Monk updated his sextet’s sound with electronic drums and the occasional synthesizer wash, and augmented his band with jazz vocalist Patricia Barber for one track, Toussaint goes further, employing samples, effects, and drum programming on virtually every track, and the soul-period Stevie Wonder-style vocals of Noel McCoy on three cuts. Such an approach means that Toussaint has to walk a fine line, seeking to appeal to the acid jazz crowd who flock to see him at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club, without alienating those who remember his fine, straight-ahead compositions for the mid-1980s incarnation of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
Toussaint’s playing, on tenor or soprano, is impressive throughout, his clear, soaring sound cutting through the occasionally cluttered arrangements. His tasteful playing on soprano on "People Make the World Round" perfectly complements McCoy’s soulful vocals on what is, like the infectious "Betcha By Golly Wow", a superior acid jazz outing. The more straight-ahead Toussaint comes to the fore with a buoyant soprano solo on Herbie Hancock’s "Textures" and some mournful tenor work on "Lament for Kenny", dedicated to the late Kenny Kirkland and Toussaint’s best composition on the album. The saxophonist receives fine support from a virtual who’s who of the London contemporary jazz scene. The talented guitarist Tony Remy, who also contributes compositions and arrangements and produces the album, has an enjoyably funky solo on the otherwise meandering "Song of the Replicants", but is disappointingly low in the mix elsewhere. Jason Rebello plays keys and provides a hauntingly sparse arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s "Diana". Played by Toussaint on tenor backed by a string quartet, this short track highlights the fact that a musician as gifted as Toussaint does not need to rely so heavily on electronic bells and whistles. Finally, Byron Wallen contributes some well-judged muted trumpet on "Lament for Kenny" and what else? the Davis tribute "2 Miles".
For much of this album, Toussaint succeeds in his balancing act. The release has fine moments of both acid and straight-ahead jazz,occasionally, as in "Textures", in the same cut. It's not as successful at mixing jazz with pop as Crosstalk, however, perhaps because it occasionally veers from the sound principal, articulated by Monk in the Crosstalk sleeve notes, that such fusion music needs to be firmly grounded in staightahead jazz. After all, jazz is what Toussaint does best, and when he slips into bland pop funk on "Choral Fantasy" or the aforementioned "Song of the Replicants" the album momentarily sags. This aside, The Street Above the Underground is a release worthy of your attention, and one whose hold on you strengthens with successive listens.
For more information on this album, visit Alltone Records at www.alltone.co.uk
Track Listing: 1. People Make the World Go Round, 2. Afro, 3.Betcha By Golly Wow, 4. Film Scope, 5.Song of the Replicants, 6. 2 Miles, 7. Choral Fantasy, 8. Textures, 9. Lament for Kenny, 10. Diana, 11. What Would You Say?