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Dan Wilensky: Back In The Mix

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Thirteen years separated the release of tenor saxophonist Dan Wilensky's first two albums— And Then Some (Speechless, 1997) and If You Only Knew (Speechless, 2010)—but the saxophonist wasn't sitting around idly during that stretch of time. Wilensky's work as a session player, touring musician, author, and educator kept him beyond busy, yet his own music suffered as a result. Thankfully, the saxophonist has been focusing his efforts on being a leader since 2009, and the resultant albums released since that time have been consistently engaging. He started the ball rolling with If You Only Knew and followed it up with the wide-ranging, humor-laced Group Therapy (Speechless, 2011). Now, less than a year after his previous release, Wilensky returns with the appropriately titled Back In The Mix.

Wilensky's balance of originals to covers, and his use of the same rhythm team from Group Therapy, may lead some to believe that this is more of the same, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The decision to switch from a guitar-supported format to a piano-based quartet, with pianist Mark Soskin—of Sonny Rollins sideman fame—manning the keys, completely changes the character of the music. Add to that, the presence of trumpeter Russ Johnson on four tracks, and a more measured approach to the music, and you have a completely different—but no less impressive—package.

The album opens with the bristling title track, which showcases Wilensky, Johnson and Soskin as soloists, while drummer Tony Moreno's drumming and four-on-the-floor hi-hat—à la Tony Williams—spurs them on from below, but the leader quickly turns his attention elsewhere. "Hand In Hand" marries a Herbie Hancock-like vibe and cool, breezy melody with an easygoing groove, "Just Happy" sizzles with a pseudo-samba foundation, while "Falling In Love With Love" finds the group in fine, swinging form. In other places, as on J.J. Johnson's "Lament," the oft-covered "Tenderly" and the soulful "After All Is Said And Done," Wilensky opens up and allows everybody to see the sensitive side of his artistry, which adds another dimension to the music.

Viewed on its own merits Back In The Mix is a strong album from a true original but, in a broader sense, it proves to be the final piece of the aural triptych that marks the triumphant return of Dan Wilensky.

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