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Justin Janer: Following Signs

Dan Bilawsky By

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While people might want to pigeonhole alto saxophonist Justin Janer as a Latin jazz player, Following Signs paints him as a musician and composer with a broad outlook that goes past generic stylistic markers. Janer occupied the lead alto chair when percussionist Bobby Sanabria delivered the goods with the Manhattan School of Music's Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra on Kenya Revisited Live!!! (Jazzheads Records, 2009). Janer's work on that project—ranging from explosive soloing to a more measured approach—resulted in his being named the 2009 Latin Jazz Saxophonist Of The Year by The Latin Jazz Corner. Further accolades, including a nomination for a Latin Grammy and winning the Hispanic Scholarship Fund-McNamara Family Creative Arts Project Grant (which helped fund this recording), cemented his status as a saxophonist on the rise in the world of Latin jazz. While all of these accolades could have easily resulted in a Latin-leaning debut recording for Janer, he chose a different path and presents his searching compositions and playing on Following Signs

Janer and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, who seems to be everywhere since winning the Thelonious Monk Institute's trumpet competition in 2007, start "Bright New Day" with a cheery motif. After a brief piano interlude from Fabian Almazan, the two horns trade off the leading role and do a nice job blurring the lines between composed material and improvised lines. A bit of uncertainty surrounds the title track and Janer slowly paints a noir-ish line over a loose musical background. Bassist Ruben Samama gets some solo space and Janer's phrasing, dynamics and suspense-building lines help to heighten the sense of drama in the music.

"Alice In Wonderland," from the 1951 animated Disney film, is recast as a cool modern jazz vehicle. Almazan spars with Akinmusire, during the trumpeters solo, and throws out some idiosyncratic phrases that push the music forward. "Fidelity" brings guitarist Sebastian Cruz into the mix and Janer joins him for the slowly snaking line at the top of the song. Everybody seems to be on their best behavior as "Song For Suji" slowly unfolds. This ballad-like piece features some glistening piano work from Almazan and sensitive brush playing from drummer William Clarke. Akinmusire's tone takes on a warmer quality here, while Janer's sound remains a bit brighter in most places.

"Loss" begins with an unaccompanied bass introduction—with pinging harmonics followed by ominously deep tones—and Janer eases into the music, arriving at some of his most profoundly lyrical and emotional playing on the album. "California Sky" starts with some grooving bass work over Michael W. Davis' percussive accompaniment and eventually becomes a full-on saxophone assault with Janer's most aggressive playing. "Bump" meanders along until Akinmusire takes over and goes way out with sprinting runs, splatty notes, airy screams, moans and other found-sounds, all matched by Almazan's dissonant piano responses and accompanying clatter. Janer proves, time and time again, that you never know what's beyond the next turn on Following Signs.

Track Listing: Bright New Day; Following Signs; Alice In Wonderland; Fidelity; Song For Suji; Loss; California Sky; Bump.

Personnel: Justin Janer: alto saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire: trumpet; Fabian Almazan: piano; Sebastian Cruz: guitar (4); Ruben Samama: bass; Michael W. Davis: drums (2, 4, 6, 7); Will Clark: drums (1, 3, 5, 8).

Title: Following Signs | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: Janer Music


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