What separates a good jazz artist from a great one? Clearly, you've got to have certain essentials to be a credible player: good time, a strong command of the language, the ability to navigate changes, and a good set of ears in order to be a responsive improviser. But to be a great player you've got transcend common denominators. It might be through innovation (pushing the boundaries of convention) or something subtler: finding new things to say within the context of already established traditions.
Saxophonist Steve Heckman is an active player in the San Francisco Bay Area who works with a number of groups. He cites John Coltrane as his primary influence. The story has it that he listened to A Love Supreme every day for two years back in high school. And while Live at Yoshi's pays some tribute to the late innovator, Heckman and his quartet fall more within the good category than the great one.
That's not to imply Heckman isn't a strong player. On this 67-minute, eight-song collectionsplit equally between original compositions and standardsHeckman proves himself a capable soloist, able to sustain himself during extended and well-constructed solos on the slow cook of Coltrane's "Equinox and the soft ballad "You're a Weaver of Dreams. Warm-toned and lyrical, he's curiously antithetical to the Love Supreme-era Coltrane that he cites as so influential. Heckman's style, if there is any corollary, would be closer to earlier, Prestige-era Coltrane, before he began developing the sheets-of-sound approach that would so define his later years.
Heckman's quartet, featuring pianist Matt Clark, bassist Karen Horner, and drummer Jemal Ramirez, clearly knows its way around the mainstream. Interplay may not be deep, but it's there. Ramirez in particular demonstrates the kind of ears it takes to help elevate a set comprised of minimal arrangements designed to exploit group strength through soloing over confident accompaniment. Again, however, the direct Coltrane reference is hard to find; the quartet creates a pleasant, nonconfrontational vibe, rather than the intensityslow-burning or more fieryof Coltrane's '60s-era quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones.
Heckman's "Ode to the Sunsinger and "This is the Moment are both blues pieces, while "Deonde is a medium-tempo 6/8 modal tune that finds the group getting a little more energetic, but still working within a comfort zone. "Theosphere, with its quirky end-of-phrase tag, pays homage to Monk. Clark's solo even captures some of his blocky idiosyncrasies, and Heckman proves himself as comfortable on soprano as on tenor.
Ultimately, Live at Yoshi's is an accessible set by a group that clearly has all the earmarks of talent. Unfortunately, while it's a well-played and enjoyable set, there's little to give it greatness. There's no outside-the-box thinking, nor is there anything particularly new being said. Still, there's no denying Heckman's skill, which allows him to be differentiated from a multitude of equally capable players in locales around the globe.
Visit Steve Heckman on the web.