For a saxophonist the holy grail is the overall sound or tone, that feeling of concise wordless communication that can compress a lifetime into a solo or even a measure. Of course technique is important but it plays a supporting role and can only improve incrementally on what is there naturally. When asked about players that he feels a connection to Chicago born saxophonist, bandleader and composer Chris Weller
couched his reply in similar terms. The players he highlighted were couched in terms of their overall individual sound, maybe mentioning specific configurations (e.g. Joe Lovano
with Paul Motian
) and occasionally even highlighting individual notesfor example John Coltrane
's opening note on "Dedicated to You" (with Johnny Hartman
It is this primacy of the overall 'feel' of a piece that is most important to him and which he and his band give plenty of evidence of on the six tracks of this enjoyable self-produced debut CD. In part this comes from the strong personal connection between the band members: Weller and keyboard player Cole DeGenova
grew up together in Chicago, being joined by drummer Devin Drobka
while they all studied at Berklee. The strong musical connection between the trio, and the ease with which Weller felt he could write for them, led to their deciding to explore this music more seriously and, ultimately, this album.
Fine opener "D Rover" gets things off to a lively start, Weller's sax having that visceral quality of the likes of Mats Gustafson
, powering the piece forward. Had there been bass on this track it might have overwhelmed, but the temptation to 'turn things up to eleven' was admirably resisted. This is a very difficult balance to strike -Neneh Cherry
& the Thing managed it in their classic 2012 collaboration, tempering the latter's power and instrumental pyrotechnics without lessening the overall impact. Here Weller and the band ease the material into a free-er space, but naturally bring the theme back just at the point when it feels like the momentum might be lost.
But this is far from being a simple blowing date, second track Duke Ellington
's "The Single Petal of a Rose" being about as great a contrast from the opener as it is possible to get. It is however, extremely effective in its use of simple straight ahead tender tenor sax over a modulated keyboard effect, the combination being another album highlight. Somewhere between these two extremes is another favourite, album closer "Confucius Says." Here Weller's sax and DeGenova's keyboard weave around Drobka's fantastically complex percussion work to great effect.
The eclectism of the collection is a strength, reinforced by the musical openness of the band. Weller is right to emphasise that improvisation is possible across all genres, tellingly citing jazz standards, Eric Satie and Dvorak alongside the Black Keys as potential sources when asked about the band's professed tendency to improvise around popular songs live. Of course you need the talent to back this up and the CD works because the feel and the musicianship are there.
So "Doo-Wop"'s faster tempo free-er excursion works well as does "Early Bird"'s melodic sax with off centre reggae backbeat. The latter is particularly risky territory but somehow balances energy, enthusiasm and technique effectively. Only slight misfire is "Lucid Dream" where some of the intensity of the preceding tracks is lost.
The album was recorded over two sessionsthe first in December 2013 being particularly memorable yielding "D Rover," "Doo- Wop" and "Confucius Says." Apparently other material from that first session is in the can suggesting that some care and thought has been given to the structure and sequencing of the collection which is actually quite unusual, particularly on debut CDs which tend to be simple records of live sets.
As a showcase of what this young band can do this is a highly enjoyable CD. They are not quite the finished article, but there is plenty of potential and opportunities for further musical exploration in these tracks to suggest that they are not so far off. At its best, it suggests that the possible directions that they might take in the future could be very special indeed. Ones to watch.
D Rover; The Single Petal of a Rose; Doo-Wop; Early Bird; Lucid Dream; Confucius Says.
Chris Weller: tenor saxophone; Devin Drobka: drums; Cole DeGenova: keyboard/rhodes.