Introducing Shawn Baltazor

David A. Orthmann By

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Forty-five minutes prior to New Tricks' opening set, Shawn Baltazor began to tote his drum kit from a parking space down the street from Trumpets Jazz Club. Four drums were neatly stacked and secured to a rolling luggage carrier. An oversized sack contained bulky metal hardware and miscellaneous equipment. A cymbal bag with a shoulder strap completed the load. Despite the weight and mass, Baltazor cheerfully refused help on the fifty yard trek, explaining with a smile that it's all part of being a working drummer. Keeping an eye out for oncoming traffic, he carried on an animated conversation, balanced the bags, and navigated the carrier over uneven pavement.

Once inside of Trumpets, Baltazor set up his drums and cymbals on the club's small stage. He warmed up by playing informal combinations of figures derived from rudiments and the vocabulary of modern jazz drumming. It was a pleasure to listen and to observe his meticulous sticking technique. One might assume that when the band hit, he would take on the role of a judicious accompanist, sensibly encouraging his band mates and giving them lots of room to maneuver.

Beginning straightaway on "Optimistic Plea," New Tricks' opening number, and throughout the hour-long performance, Baltazor's drumming barely resembled the painstaking practice exercises. Matters of technique almost became inconsequential because of the way he threw himself into the music. Baltazor gave the impression that his mind was working at warp speed, as he listened, reacted, and offered his own perspectives on the band and the material. He was busy, assertive, interactive, and utterly spontaneous. The character of his strokes often changed in an instant. Providing a pocket wasn't synonymous with clinging to the ride cymbal. In booting the music forward, he actively worked every drum and cymbal.

For all of his activity, Baltazor never capsized the band. Though his drumming was devoid of pet licks and unnecessary repetition, he didn't sound disorganized, distant, or self-absorbed. An ongoing sense of discovery was buttressed by smart execution and a superb sense of timing. In conjunction with his frequent rhythm section partner, bassist Kellen Harrison, Baltazor made sure that the music stayed centered and true.

Concrete examples of Baltazor's artistic predilections emerged from a wave of strokes and the wealth of loosely connected beats. On the heads of "Optimistic Plea" and "New Dog," he skillfully built rhythms around the tunes' melodies in his own complementary voice. In these instances, it wasn't simply a matter of placing accents in key places; rather, he created something approximating another melodic line around the original tune.

Baltazor was exceptionally good at offering an impression of playing steady, conventional time on the cymbal, while constantly making brief forays around the rest of the drum set. During tenor saxophonist Mike Lee's "Optimistic Plea" solo, Baltazor's snapping snare drum and tom-tom rumbles were in close proximity to bits and pieces of cymbal time. When he really leaned into and concentrated on the ride cymbal it had an exceptionally propulsive effect on the band.

Throughout the set, Baltazor's rapport with the front line soloists was exemplary. During "New Dog," he found one of trumpeter Ted Chubb's phrases and instantly discovered a way to plant it between the snare and tom toms. Brutal hits to the snare and cymbals served as severe complements to a brief series of Chubb's high note flourishes in the middle of "On The Road."

In contrast to the times when he played up a storm, Baltazor's drumming was filled with moments of grace. At the onset of Lee's "Alternate Side Parking" improvisation, brief leaps between the snare and mounted tom conjured images of a deer running through the woods. In the midst of Lee's "Short Stop" solo, flowing snare drum patterns made for an acute contrast to the intensity of Baltazor's ride cymbal. Executed at a mere whisper, a series of buzz strokes to the snare enhanced the opening of Chubb's "On The Road" improvisation.

Other dimensions of Baltazor's talent are apparent throughout the nine tracks of Coin Flip, trumpeter/flugelhornist Nathan Eklund's superb 2010 release on OA2 records. Once again in tandem with Harrison's bass, he moves through Eklund's unconventional material in ways that honor the composer's intentions.

During the head of "Rooicka's Castle," Baltazor is a model of patient, thoughtful propulsion. He plays exactly what's necessary and no more. It's Harrison who provides the rhythmic spark during the lullaby-like introduction—the hiss and ping of Baltazor's cymbals barely register. Even when the band makes a smooth transition into a swinging gait in five-four time, the drummer doesn't rush to make himself heard. Some cymbal patter, a brief tom-tom fill, and a handful of snare accents suffice until Harrison starts to walk and Eklund's melody waxes emphatic. Only then do Baltazor's snare and bass drum accents really dig into the contours of the tune.

Baltazor makes his voice heard in a significant manner amidst the mercurial changes of "Professor Dissendadt." Chattering rim knocks and slippery tom-tom fills twist and turn their way through a brisk vamp that moves between three bars of four-four time and one bar of three-four. As Eklund's composition continues to evolve, the drummer adds a series of snapping snare drum beats. When there's a shift to a lock-step funk feel, Baltazor's flexible backbeat variations prevent the music's foundation from becoming too rigid. Eklund's and Craig Yaremko's (alto sax) treatment of the edgy melody is enhanced by fills that crash and rumble in unexpected places.

Although he takes an extroverted solo over the tricky bass vamp on "Professor Dissendadt," and executes a jolting turn near the end of the appropriately titled "Triple Shot Espresso," it's Baltazor's ethereal, dream-like introduction to "The Supernatural" that really stands out. Tightly knit and restrained, the forty-five second solo feels complete, in and of itself. Baltazor doesn't put the pieces together in an obvious manner, yet there's a continuous sense of development and flow. Without making a lot of strokes, he consistently introduces new sounds and rhythms. It's only in the last several seconds that Baltazor delineates something resembling a steady, recognizable pulse.

Baltazor's recent work with New Tricks and Eklund, as well as saxophonist/flautist Roxy Coss, is significant, in part, because of his uncanny ability to get to the essence of the compositions, ensemble work, and the soloists. Moreover, his drumming matters because of what sounds like an unshakable desire to put his own stamp on the music at hand. Throughout some recent recordings as well as a number of live performances over the last year it's clear that, without abandoning a traditional jazz foundation, Baltazor is rapidly moving toward a place with no convenient stylistic labels and no boundaries.

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