Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Jaleel Shaw at Philadelphia Clef Club

Victor L. Schermer BY

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Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound with Jaleel Shaw
Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz
Philadelphia, PA
June 2, 2015

This killer of a concert capped a series of four in which Bobby Zankel's Warriors of the Wonderful Sound invited guest artists to join them in performing Zankel compositions and arrangements. Seasoned innovators Dave Burrell, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Don Byron were featured in the first three events, and this show brought on Philly native and rising star saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. WRTI radio host J. Michael Harrison introduced the group and merits special acknowledgment for his devoted support of cutting edge Philadelphia music.

What made this concert exciting was the stunning way in which Shaw, a contemporary mainstream player, and the Warriors, who bear Zankel's avant-garde signature, fed each other's creativity to create a powerful synthesis rather than a coarse conjunction of opposites. Shaw energized the mainstream instincts of the Warriors, while they, in turn, with Zankel's cutting-edge arrangements inspired by the likes of Cecil Taylor and the Sun Ra Arkestra, provided a radical backdrop for Shaw to press the limits of mainstream harmonies, modal playing, and carefully crafted dissonances. The mixture worked perfectly, showing how important it is for musicians to attune to one another as a means of expanding their horizons.

The compositions were all Warriors "standards." They perform them repeatedly, but remarkably, they seem fresh and new every time. That is because Zankel allows a lot of space for solos. In addition, he is very flexible with the charts and can call for solos, riffs, and other changes that are more easily accomplished in small groups. Count Basie was past master of this big band approach, and the famous multiple repetitions at the end of "April in Paris" symbolized his ability to call for on the spot changes in a chart.

The concert began with a Warriors classic: "Spirits Break to Freedom," based on a blues riff theme that generated a lot of energy and space for improvising. Mark Allen did a grrowling "grunge" solo on the baritone saxophone. The extraordinary talent in this group came across further in the solos of trumpeter Stan Slotter, alto saxophonist Julian Pressley, and pianist Tom Lawton. But it was Shaw who gave the piece new life with his stunningly beautiful sonority. Such sound is cultivated by continual practice, and only a few players have achieved it, John Coltrane being the most notable. Shaw's solo was inventive and sophisticated, using modal twists with a touch of Bartok and reminiscent of James Moody's lines. Drummer Craig McIver brought the piece to a peak with powerful drum solo. "Lotus Flowers Blooming in the Swamp" utilized the lower register of the trombones to convey a sense of darkness and primitive activity, reminiscent in its brooding energy of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring." Shaw invoked an off-center Middle-East sound that others like Zankel and valve trombonist John Swana picked up on, and Francois Zayas added a Latin flavor on congas, using stick and hand to create a lightning effect.

"Revealing the True Identity" came across as the theme of a detective thriller TV series. It incorporated rich tone colors, especially in the bass register, in a series of movements that evoked movie scenes. Larry Toft's trombone solos sounded like a reincarnation of the great Frank Rossolino. With bassist Lee Smith's incredible rapid fingering, the piece built up to a frenzied climax, with everyone in the group improvising simultaneously. Fuggedaboudit!

"We Miss You Sadly," whose title curiously rhymes with Duke Ellington's "I Love You Madly." invoked the Ellington/Strayhorn tradition. Shaw's solo evoked a Paris blues feeling with a sweet sound reminiscent of Stan Getz. He finished it up with a ripping cadenza that would have made J.S. Bach take notice.

The Warrior personnel themselves clearly took notice of that solo. In "The Trickster," Josh Lawrence's trumpet solo picked up on much of what Shaw had been doing. Violinist Diane Monroe was obviously not to be outdone and pulled out all the stops with a show of virtuosity (move over, Mr. Paganini!) that brought the house down. And Zayas and McIver followed up with a heavy duty percussion duet.

The concert concluded with the Warriors' standard, "The Next Time I See You," initiated by Slotter with a lyrical flute intro and solo (yes, he plays both trumpet and flute masterfully.) Following a "Caravan"-like episode and a well- crafted Zankel solo. Toft and Swana did a mind-blowing two- trombone improvisation that only they or J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding could have pulled off. And once again, Shaw took it out in style with an ear-popping solo that embodied much of the later Coltrane.

Personnel: Bobby Zankel, leader, composer, arranger, and alto saxophone; Jaleel Shaw, guest artist, alto saxophone; Julian Pressley, alto saxophone; Mark Allen, baritone saxophone; Diane Monroe, violin; Josh Lawrence, trumpet; Stan Slotter, trumpet, flute; John Swana, valve trombone; Larry Toft, trombone; Tom Lawton, piano; Lee Smith, bass; Craig McIver, drums; Francois Zayas, congas.

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