Jazz to the Max: 4 New Releases From MaxJazz

C. Andrew Hovan By

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With a distinctive although somewhat monochromatic look that stands out from the crowd, the digipak covers of the MaxJazz label have housed some fine contemporary jazz releases as of late, starting first with a series of recordings by pianists and vocalists. Now they have expanded their horizon to include the works of trumpeters Jeremy Pelt and Terell Stafford, along with saxophonist Steve Wilson and pianist Geoff Keezer. But instead of going for the simplicity of their initial releases, there’s a concept at play in terms of each of these artist’s new releases that depending on which one your talking about either adds or distracts from the overall presentation.

The most recent entry in their piano series, Falling Up (MXJ 207), is the debut MaxJazz release from Geoff Keezer. A particularly skilled artist with a profound sense of jazz composition, Keezer made his debut at the age of 16 and has been somewhat of a prodigy since then. What’s rather troubling is the inconsistent nature of his recorded output over the last five or more years, with the 1993 release Other Spheres being his last significant statement. Falling Up definitely contains traces of the best parts of Other Spheres, such as the unique textures created by flute and vibes on the title track and “Navigating By Starlight.” The problem is that instead of relying on a core group of musicians which includes Steve Wilson, Joe Locke, and Paul Bollenback, Keezer goes for a mixed bag approach that settles into an atmospheric haze that skirts dangerously close to ‘new age’ sensibilities. As strong as the opening cut is with its rich sonorities and cunning arrangement, it’s frustrating to think about what might have been had Keezer decided to stick to this line-up and craft music just for them. The bottom line here is that the potpourri approach just doesn’t hold up and the end results are oddly inconclusive.

Also new to MaxJazz, saxophonist Steve Wilson made an initial splash with a critically acclaimed set of Criss Cross Jazz releases, only to be the victim of corporate downsizing when his contract with Concord Records was dropped and his albums for the label’s Stretch subsidiary were largely ignored. As with the Keezer release, Soulful Song (MXJ 401) just isn’t the long awaited follow up we’ve been waiting for from Wilson. It seems MaxJazz is bent on these mixed bag sessions with a different line-up for each track and a vocalist or two thrown in on several cuts. It makes for an interruption in the flow of things and prevents the type of chemistry that develops among working groups. The title hints at Wilson’s love for soul music of the ‘70s and he includes updated arrangements of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Reasons,” Stevie Wonder’s “Easy Goin’ Evening,” and Gil Scott Heron’s “Third World Revolution.” Not surprising, the best tracks here are the ones with Wilson fronting his quartet with Bruce Barth, Ed Howard, and Adam Cruz. By contrast the least fruitful ones are the vocal cuts with Phillip Manuel and Carla Cook. What a much better record this would have been without all the histrionics.

Young trumpet phenom Jeremy Pelt fares much better than Keezer and Wilson, although a concept is at play again here. Very different from his previous albums, Close to the Heart (MXJ 403) is in the tradition of other “with strings” discs and finds the trumpeter backed by a string quartet on most of the tracks. Fortunately, Pelt keeps his quartet with Mulgrew Miller, Peter Washington, and Lewis Nash on hand for the majority of the session and the string charts are tasteful enough to not get in the way of some beautiful solo explorations. An obvious devotee of Miles Davis, the connection to those large group collaborations between Davis and Gil Evans is subtly suggested in Pelt’s work here. He also goes for some unusual choices in his repertoire, including Mingus’ “Weird Nightmare,” “502 Blues,” and Pepper Adams’ “Excerent.” Full of ideas and a fine burnished tone, Pelt is definitely a man to watch.

The purest in concept of these four recent MaxJazz releases, New Beginnings (MXJ 402) is a flattering showcase for trumpeter Terell Stafford. First making a name for himself as a key member of Bobby Watson’s Horizon, Stafford has largely remained in the shadows the past ten years or so while working in academia. With a concept that embraces many eras of jazz, Stafford can play bebop, blow pretty (like his muted spot on “I Don’t Wanna Be Kissed”), turn up the heat in an Afro-Cuban setting, and hold his own as lead chair in a big band. Among some standards, the centerpiece of this album is Terell’s own “New Beginnings Suite,” a three-part affair that benefits from strong charts and a full sound gained by the addition of a four-piece horn section. Certainly varied enough to display his many merits, New Beginnings benefits from a healthy ensemble chemistry that has always been at the heart of the finest jazz performances.

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