Ian Hendrickson-Smith’s impressive debut on Sharp Nine possesses qualities that are rare in the inaugural recordings of young leaders. A convincing bebop-oriented player who sustains the hour-long live set without the benefit of a front line partner, the twenty-nine year old alto saxophonist knows when to take the horn out of his mouth. He has a way of making a song sound meaningful in itself, rather than just a springboard to extended improvisation. Mindful of an excellent rhythm section (spearheaded by pianist David Hazeltine), as a soloist Hendrickson-Smith invites interaction by consistently leaving open space for them to fill.
There are other factors, like setting the right tempos, which contribute to the disc’s success. A deliberate, measured pace helps to transform Billy Strayhorn’s “Chelsea Bridge” into a soulful strut. Joe Strasser’s crisp drumming keeps the band in the pocket and doesn’t detract from Hendrickson- Smith’s heartfelt treatment of the melody. A medium-fast tempo suits the jagged contours of Charlie Parker’s “Segment.” It also enables the listener to catch niceties, like Hazeltine’s guiding chords behind the leader’s solo, which might not register at a more rapid clip.
Aside from some brief, double-time passages, there’s a relaxed, open quality to Hendrickson- Smith’s three choruses on “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” the disc’s opening track. While the rhythm section settles into a medium-bounce tempo and gradually brings up the level of intensity without raising a fuss, the alto saxophonist plays as if he’s got nothing to prove and no one to impress. His purposeful lines favor melodic development over velocity, and radiates warmth that never turns mawkish.
Hendrickson-Smith’s playing on the title track, a slow blues, is another example of his resourcefulness and maturity. He begins an unaccompanied segment with a declarative shout, and then skillfully blends familiar blues locutions and short phrases that are in no hurry to reach a destination. Alternately passionate and subdued, two beautifully paced choruses give the impression that he’s holding something in reserve until reaching a rousing climax in the last four bars.
Personnel: Ian Hendrickson-Smith--alto saxophone; David Hazeltine--piano; Barak Mori--acoustic bass; Joe