With John In Mind, Oakland-based multi-saxophonist Steve Heckman's debut, pays heartfelt homage to his foremost influence ' John Coltrane ' with exceptionally played originals and pair of standards. It probably wasn't a wise decision to invite comparisons to the most influential saxophonist in recent jazz history with his opening salvo, but Heckman's genuine feeling toward Coltrane's music and his obvious talents quickly erase any preconceptions.
In contrast to his primary influence, Heckman's real strength on this debut release is melodic improvisation ' and he plays it out with sparkling lyricism and a warm, confident tone whether on tenor, baritone or soprano sax. The opener, "R.S.V.P.," is brisk slice of hard bop with a memorable theme. Heckman blows with Dexter Gordon-like endurance while pianist Matthew Clark exploits a deft right hand and the wide range of ideas he continues to explore throughout the entire recording. Equally memorable is "With John In Mind," which offers a lovely call-and-response theme between tenor sax and piano in ' time. Hechman's fine soloing on this selection is evocative of Trane's sunnier work and Clark blends some exciting trills into several challenging choruses.
After a few songs, one comes to the realization that Hechman is as versatile a composer as he is a player. His songs range from the energetic to the heart-rending, but all of them convey a warm beauty. His original "Sad Poetry" and standards like "Body And Soul," and "Everything Happens To Me" show Hechman at his most expressive and offer sublime rhythmic modulation by bassist Lee Alexander and drummer Diego Voglino. Hechman's soprano work on "Sad Poetry" is particularly moving. But as catchy as the blues bop of "Rodney's Red Raincoat" (love that title) and the rather misleading "Eye Of The Beast" may be, these up-tempo songs evidence Hechman's reluctance to embrace the "darker" side of Coltrane's playing and the more incendiary soloing for which he is famous. When given the space and tempo to really catch fire, Hechman too often maintains a respectful pace and repeats circuitous progressions until his time is up. There's no denying the precision of his playing or his ability to propel the melody on a song like "Raincoat," but one longs for the spontaneity of a big, fat overtone.
Still, it's a pleasure to hear a virtuoso talent like Steve Hechman step into the national spotlight. With John In Mind is a provocative listen and highly recommended on the strength of its memorable compositions and the exacting technique of Hechman. But a balanced meal only satisfies for so long. Perhaps on his next effort, Hechman will reach for the hot sauce a few times.
Track Listing: R.S.V.P.; With John In Mind; Body And Soul; Sad Poetry; I Am Not Your Fantasy; Eye Of The
Beast; Everything Happens To Me; Rodney's Red Raincoat; Lost In A Champagne Fog.
Personnel: Steve Heckman: tenor, baritone and soprano saxophones;
Matthew Clark: piano;
Lee Alexander: bass;
Diego Voglino: drums.