It is mostly troublesome to make blanket assertions about jazz and the musicians that facilitate the art form. Such assertions are subjective at best, yet it would not seem unreasonable to assert that Caleb Wheeler Curtis
is one of the more interesting alto saxophonists to emerge since 2000. His playing has a radiant, vocal quality to it, whether addressing strong melodies, or abstractions of the same. His approach is strong without being forced, and while his musical spirit has an open willingness for exploration, his musical upbringing within strong mentorship gives it an inherent wisdom. As part of the "village" of musicians centering around pianist Orrin Evans
, he has appeared on two Grammy nominated albums playing with his Captain Black Big Band
. The relationships he formed from that kinship with Evans is evident in the company he keeps for his own releases.
There is no shortage of opportunity to hear Curtis' work as a leader since 2021, thanks to four releases on the Imani, Unit and Sunnyside labels. Ain't No Storm
(Imani, 2021) is mostly a chord-less quintet date, with the altoist sharing the front line with trumpeter Josh Lawrence and tenorist Chet Doxas
. CBBB mates Luques Curtis
and Mark Whitfield
on bass and drums fill out the fivesome. With the trio Ember, Curtis probes through open ended pieces melodically between spaces created by bassist Noah Garabedian
and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza
. For the release No One is Any One
(Sunnyside, 2021), they are joined by Evans on piano. Then there is a brilliant duo record with Swiss pianist Laurent Nicoud
(Unit, 2022), that lays out a universe of space for Curtis to explore.
While all of these previous recordings hip us to the aforementioned assertion of Curtis being a paragon of interest in modern jazz, it is perhaps his second 2022 release that binds together all of this interest, all of this collective insight into melodic improvisation, into one kinetically charged recording. Curtis wrote the music for Heatmap
inspired by the natural world during a four week residency at the prestigious MacDowell Colony in 2021. Left to the solitude of his own thoughts, he created music that offers ample space for the master improvisers he employed to navigate. The quartet session includes Evans on piano, along with the masterful Eric Revis
on bass and the eclectic Gerald Cleaver
behind the kit on drums.
With the title track, we gain insight into the mindset of the session, with the rhythm section unspooling a harmonic wide open space for the listener to hear Curtis' focused alto freely in the air. Curtis' sound may dwell somewhere between Ornette Coleman
and John Coltrane
, yet that space is free territory that he legitimately stakes a claim to artistically. From there, the rush is on, with the music not only supporting the best of the leader, but of his mates as well, resulting in his most focused, refined effort to date. "Surrounding" is unsettled and anxious, with boundaries of time and space eroded to the minimum. This piece best illustrates Cleaver's unique skill set and how it fits seamlessly into Curtis' vision. Evans solos first and then leaves the slate blank for Curtis to proceed. There are few harmonic interruptions. On the other side of the spectrum, "Trees For the Forest" eschews the Coleman-esque approach that the aforementioned tune employs. A more tranquil vibe pays homage to towering tall trees, with Curtis playing the role of birdsong within a forest of gentle harmony. The two diametric sides of the coin speak to Curtis' emergence over the course of his last four recordings, as a composer of great talent and depth.
On "Trembling" and "Sphere," Cleaver's driving, pulsating rhythms lays down a dense contrast for Curtis' vibrant long tones and sharp, darting quick phrasing. The artist's pure tonality is captured in a total sense, creating melodic clarity within repetitive phrases and crushing, dense chords comped by Evans. Heatmap
tells us who Caleb Wheeler Curtis is on a broader scale than his previous recordings. While each makes a statement of its own as to his artistic evolution, his latest reveals a power source previously uncovered, and a broader connection with the music itself. As a composer, these tunes construct a vehicle that can carry the load provided by heavyweights Evans, Revis and Cleaver. Rather than the album being a reflection of his current status as an artist, it comes off more as the organic being of his work to date.
Heatmap; Tossed Aside; Surrounding; Limestone; Splinters; Trees For the Forest; Trembling;
Whisperchant; C(o)urses; Spheres.