If you were a young and talented jazz musician in Portland, Oregon, you would make yourself highly visible on the local scene to gain invaluable experience playing with the best the city had to offer. In addition to your more formal studies, you would extend your musical outreach from post-bop modernism to the avant-garde. Most importantly, you would constantly be rubbing musical shoulders with the elders who have mentored you to the point of having professional aspirations.
This is precisely what Portland-based alto saxophonist Nicole McCabe accomplished before her 2020 move to Los Angeles. Along the way she benefited from performing with the great pianist George Colligan, trumpeter Charlie Porter, bassist Jon Lakey, and veteran drummer/producer Alan Jones. For her debut recording Introducing Nicole McCabe (Minaret, 2020), she gathers all four to perform a collection of original tunes, along with two covers.
Beginning in quartet mode, McCabe's "You're Missing the Point" tells us most of what we need to know about her playing going forward on this record. It features her marvelous facility, exceptional range and ardent tonality, but more so, the artistry that is unreliant on virtuosity, and living within the melodic context of the moment. She ups the ante a bit for "Upward" (pun intended), adding Porter's luxurious tone, with the two reworking the melody behind the driving energy of this superb rhythm section. Colligan's elegant comping, and brilliant solo work is alone worth giving this album a listen. In combination with Lakey's bottom-end groove, and Jones playing at his freewheeling best, a wide berth is given for McCabe to play freely within.
"Coeur d'Alene" takes the music in a different direction, a samba-influenced piece that finds McCabe in a more reflective space. That space becomes that much more intimate, with McCabe finding herself in duo with Colligan, interpreting the Carl Fischer standard, "You've Changed." The altoist plays bittersweet, evoking the melancholy emotions of the tune as a vocalist might.
Colligan contributes as a composer as well, offering "Lunar," a haunting melody that the pianist takes to the edge before the band slowly falls into a hard-bop groove directly in the center of McCabe's comfort zone. Her solo comprised of harmonic bursts, probing melodic inquiries, and a headfirst dive into fiery chromaticism represents her most inventive playing on the album. Colligan's support is slight, abrupt and intuitive between McCabe's adventurous lines.
The alto saxophone has a certain vibrational resonance that is so very different from the tenor. McCabe does an admirable job of avoiding the associated alto-ish cliches that attach themselves to the legacies of Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, or for that matter, to those of Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy. There is a sincerity to her playing that bears the marks of late night bandstands, of patiently waiting her turn at jam sessions as a younger player. There is humility and respect in her playing, a true cognizance of the tradition from where her art comes from, and a feeling of surrender to where the music is directionally headed. This effort is aptly titled, it is indeed an introduction to a new generation jazz artist that surely will have much to say for years to come.
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