Saxophonist Alexa Tarantino
has as impressive resume in jazz as any artist could hope for at this stage of a career. As a performer, she has contributed notably to The DIVA Jazz Orchestra
, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra
, the Cecile McLorin Salvant
Quintet and Arturo O'Farrill
& The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, to note a few. She has lived the jazz life, juggling responsibilities as an educator, musician and curator, somehow fitting all the pieces together that illustrate the intricacies of being a jazz musician in the 21st century. She has in her time as well gained a well deserved reputation for humility and dedication to service, exhibiting a refreshingly selfless approach to her life as an artist.
That being said, when you break everything down, where one can truly witness her mettle as a saxophonist is when she performs with her quartet, or with the quintet she co-leads with baritone saxophonist Lauren Sevian
, LSAT. With her new release Clarity
(Posi-Tone, 2020) Tarantino takes one step further in establishing herself as a strong, melody based, straight ahead improviser. She as well establishes her formidable chops as a bandleader.
This is the second quartet album for Tarantino, following the Posi-Tone model of frequent releases, reminiscent of a philosophy akin to the earlier days of Blue Note. Times however, are staggeringly different in the 2020's, with musicians spending less time in clubs and jam sessions, and more time as educators, curators and small business operators. In other words, when the time comes to record, no matter the frequency, there is an imperative to make it count. On her new release, Tarantino the saxophonist leaves no trace of doubt that she is playing at an extremely high level. While the music overall is dead-straight ahead, she displays a willingness to interpret on broader terms, not only in terms of musical vocabulary, but by witness of a stronger, more forceful tonality. The questions remaining regarding her prowess as a bandleader are answered in nine tracks.
The format for the album is virtually identical to her previous quartet release, Winds of Change
(Posi-Tone, 2019), wisely bringing back bassist Joe Martin
and the marvelous Rudy Royston
on drums. The piano chair is held down aptly by the multi-talented Steven Feifke
, replacing Christian Sands
. Tarantino offers four originals, with Feifke chipping in one of his own. The selections are rounded out by four covers, including Horace Silver
's "Gregory is Here."
The opening two tunes are Tarantino's, featuring the leader on flute for "Through," and alto on the edgy, hard bop thriller, "A Race Against Yourself." Royston's symphonic drum and cymbal work creates a rhythmic wash of sound that carries the opener featuring Tarantino's rich toned solo. While she has played flute and alto flute with more frequency in current times, the second track clearly delineates where her true and original voice is. " A Race Against Yourself" is described by the artist as "How I feel in the moment, where I'm stretched too thin, or working with a lack of clarity." Tarantino's solo on the piece has plenty of clarity. What is clear is that she has abandoned many of the safe places many musicians of note seem to reside, until they approach the notion of an "original voice." Of course, any altoist bears the lineage of BIrd and Cannonball, just as modern tenor players carry the sound of Coltrane somewhere in their musical DNA. But Tarantino seems to be shaking loose from the mold, and ascending with a distinct cadence, stronger presence, and adventurous spirit. With Royston and Martin driving the band, Tarantino's dazzling solo is followed by pianist Feifke's fluid playing featuring a hard driving left hand and fleet, melodic passages.
Luis Demetrio's "La Puerta" harkens back to Tarantino's time with Arturo O'Farrill. She sat next to the great Bobby Porcelli
at Birdland for the gig, and seems to channel a bit of his sweet toned magic. "This was my thank you to Bobby for his beautiful sound and generous spirit," says Tarantino.
Silver's "Gregory is Here" barely resembles the original recording featuring Michael Brecker's tenor on the album, In Pursuit of the 27th Man
(Blue Note, 1973). Brecker's snarling, gritty tenor is replaced by Tarantino's sweet, melodic soprano. The tune rides on a rhythmic wave that includes Feifke transitioning to Rhodes, giving the tune a much different feel from Silver's pounding, chordal approach to harmony on piano.
Feifke's "Karma" returns the band to its hard bop/post-bop persona, where it seems to find a distinct comfort zone. Tarantino's playing has an allure that somehow juxtaposes historic alto references to lines that are modern and thematic in nature. Feifke's piano solo is one of the true highlights of the album, leading to Royston's thunderous solo that accentuates his beautiful playing throughout this album. His presence alone speaks volumes of Tarantino's leadership, and the respect she has deservedly garnered on the bandstand.
There are perhaps two great dangers going forward for the present and future of jazz music. One is that the music bears the vibe and heavy handed influence of the conservatory as opposed to the mentor dominant old school of learning per the oral tradition and paying dues on the bandstand. The second is how modern capitalism and life in the twentieth century has stretched a professional musician's schedule so thin, to the point of not having nearly as much time to play and interact with other musicians. The demonetization of the recording industry, and the rising cost of doing business in general has presented the undeniable economic reality of having to pursue opportunities to earn a living aside from the discipline of being a world class jazz musician. The Covid-19 pandemic now threatens to decimate live performances, the life blood for a musician creatively, and in modern times, economically. Tarantino has traversed all of this in admirable fashion. From Julliard, to the Eastman School of Music, to her current world class statue as a musician and educator, she has set impossible goals for herself that she somehow continues to accomplish. Where she sets her sights as a bandleader next will surely be intriguing. Does she have the will to wander off the straight ahead path she has set for herself a bit, and explore other quadrants of the jazz universe? This record clearly expresses her deep soul as one of the finest alto players in jazz today. What will define her career will be her ability to continue to grow as a bandleader. Hip and relevant jazz music requires more than talent-it requires the efforts of hip and relevant musicians. For Clarity
, Tarantino has assembled such a cast.
Through; A Race Against Yourself; La Puerta; A Unified Front; Gregory is Here; Karma; Breaking Cycles; Thank You For Your Silence; My Ship.