In today’s jazz scene, playing within the tradition can get you both overlooked and out of a major label contract. Alto saxophonist Sherman Irby is familiar with jazz conventions and is also launching his own label Black Warrior Records. Jazz’s present preoccupation with all things beats-and-groove related has cast away its young lions for jazz/rock fusion stars. With history repeating itself, can we now predict a Wynton-esque revival in 10 years?
Irby, now 33 years old, has an impressive resume from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to Roy Hargrove, Marcus Roberts, and Dee Dee Bridgewater. He released two impressive Blue Note discs as a leader, Full Circle (1997) and Big Mama’s Biscuits (1998). Both worth finding before they go out-of-print, they reveal a saxophonist with a keen sense of swing thoroughly in love with melody.
Cut loose from his major label contract Irby’s music making is more roots oriented, specifically rooted in a Southern jazz tradition emphasizing soulfulness. Taking a cue from Bobby Watson’s Horizon years, Irby stretches beyond bebop through snap-to blues and soul. On Black Warrior he enlists fellow Hargrove bandmates, Gerard Cannon and Willie Jones III, plus pianist Eric Reed. The one name that continually comes to mind while listening to Irby is Cannonball Adderley. Like Adderley, Irby is always pushing a blues-soaked sound even on his ballad “Ruby.” “Blues For Stanley T” pulls a slow-drag blues tribute to recently passed tenor man Stanley Turrentine. Eric Reed’s “Ornate,” played without piano, hints at Ornette Coleman before breaking into a freeform improvisation replete with a reference to Thelonious Monk.
Like his closest peer, Wessell Anderson, Sherman Irby has a knack for soulful jazz emanating from a Southern blues tradition. His vision of jazz beyond the conservatory and into smoky clubs is not novel, but it is refreshing.