Quiet as it's kept, too many of today's finest jazz artists are given short shrift by an industry that seems to value product of a fleeting nature over true craft and a reverence for the jazz legacy. This makes it particularly challenging for a talent like Adam Shulman to break through to a wider audience. A fixture on the Bay Area scene since 2002, the pianist has a knack for accompanying singers such as Paula West and often performs as a duo with bassist John Wiitala. The past three years he has enthralled SFJAZZ audiences with his adaption of Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas performed during the holiday season.
As a leader, the disc at hand joins five other inimitable sides that speak to Shulman's unique gifts both as a pianist and composer. An all-star crew from the east coast mates with Shulman's west coast sensibilities in an instance where the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. For one thing, bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green already have a considerable track record together. The pair often anchor piano trio gigs with the likes of Jeb Patton and Benny Green. As for trumpeter Joe Magnarelli and trombonist Steve Davis, the New York mainstays have worked together often, appearing on albums led by Mags, Ken Fowser, and Charles Davis.
Rounding out the septet are two distinctive saxophonists who bring their own singular experiences to the table. A native of New Orleans, Ian Hendrickson-Smith's muse covers a good deal of ground having been a member of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings for six years and currently holding down a spot in The Roots, as seen nightly on The Tonight Show. With a trajectory that seems almost the polar opposite, tenor man Stephen Riley's formative years were spent working with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. He also has appeared with Harry Connick, Jr. in addition to touting his own recorded catalog of well over a dozen sessions.
Of the eight pieces that make up the present recital, a full seven of them are penned by Shulman. He manages to pique our interest via sagacious horn voicings and a varied selection of tempos and moods. Revisiting a tried and true vernacular that continues to provide fodder, Shulman's musical sensibilities here lie somewhere between Miles Davis' Birth of the Cool dates and Art Pepper's Plus Eleven album.
The opening "Nickel and Dimed" is aptly named as it borrows its chord structure from Tin Pan Alley's "Pennies from Heaven." Green's brushes fill in the spaces nicely on this swinger that also includes some tangy trumpet work from Magnarelli. With a tip of the hat to west coast drum legend Shelly Manne, "Manne-Splanin'" strikes a vibrant pose akin to Woody Herman's "Four Brothers." Riley's tenor speaks in breathy tones and his choice of notes and rhythmic creativity mark him as a talent deserving of wider recognition.
Shulman's preference for other large ensemble proprietors can be heard through "Lean and Mean" and "Mingus Dreams of Billy Strayhorn." The former boasts a dynamic melody that steps up and down the scale not unlike Oliver Nelson's arrangement of "Cool" from West Side Story. Hendrickson-Smith's lush alto delivers the lead melody on the latter, a trinket that tips its hat to Mingus' "Duke Ellington's Sound of Love."
First heard on his 1954 set Vol.1: The Quintets, Lennie Niehaus' "Whose Blues" steps up the tempo and gives Green a chance to trade licks with the horns near the tune's conclusion. The drummer also solos over a horn vamp on the jaunty waltz number "Jack's Basket." Opting for something out of the ordinary here, Shulman avoids the typical sequencing of solos as alto and tenor trade eight bar phrases, to then be spelled by trumpet and trombone doing the same.
A gorgeous ballad number, "Heart of Winter" makes the most of the horn section's sonorous tones. Davis delivers an amber-hued gem during his time in the spotlight, while Shulman's crisp touch speaks volumes through his use of single note runs. Everyone save Wong then offers a hearty adieu with "Central Avenue," a sprite flag waver that wears its bop-inflected roots proudly.
At a time when veneration for jazz music's bygone days seems to have become passé, Shulman and his blue-chip ensemble make no bones about their desire to use the best elements of the tradition to enlighten their own creative forays. The results are fresh testimony that everything old is new again.
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