When he finally hit the limelight, saxophonist Loren Stillman seemed to come out of nowhere, fully formedor at least with a clear composing technique and playing style, both of them distinctive and recognizable.
However, an "overnight sensation" is rarely that and How Sweet It Is (Nagel Heyer, 2003), the album that signaled the arrival of a major new (and quite young) talent, was preceded by Cosmos (Soul Note Records, 1997), recorded when Stillman was in his teens.
Stillman's distinctive style solidified and expanded on his two subsequent quartet releases, Gin Bon (Blue Moon, 2003) and It Could Be Anything (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2005). The description "mainstream" was often applied to all these albums, but it never seemed appropriate to me. Stillman's music offered so many surprising and unexpected facetsand it was deep.
Alas, his music is not "free", although his playing is as free as someone like David Binney. Yet neither is it "post-bop" or "post-post-bop." It is however simultaneously accessible and challenging. On the evidence accrued, Stillman seemed to be that rare thing: an original whose career was something to be watched.
So the two albums reviewed below, both recorded in April last year, came as something of a surprise to me. For, superficially at least, Stillman seems to be taking a right turn with more conservative music. There is always the danger of the fan having expectations and being disappointed because the current apple, while tasty, is not the orange he has grown to love...
But have no fear, Stillman fans, both releases reveal much about Stillman's musical personality and growth.
Brothers' Breakfast features nine Stillman originals and Thelonious Monk's "Gallop's Gallop," which serves as a crossing point and separates the second half of the album from the first. The quartet is made up of drummer Jeff (misspelled "Jess" on the cover) Hirshfield, who has played with Stillman a long time, organist Gary Versace, who besides playing with virtually every guitarist in New York City and who recorded recently with Lee Konitz (see Organic-Lee), has filled in on piano in Stillman's regular quartet, and guitarist Vic Juris, who has shown himself to be a very versatile sideman.
Those familiar with Stillman's earlier efforts will easily recognize his style. The distinction here is a question of degree: a bit of the mystery is gone, the bar lines are more evident, the harmony less abstract and Stillman's tone slightly more astringent. The point is that if this were Stillman's first album, it would have been considered quite good and would have gotten noticedbut the momentum of the earlier albums, justly or unjustly, appears to have slowed a bit.
That said, Brothers' Breakfast takes a turn towards the deep end of the pool with the tune "Crushed Ice," which takes the main phrase from the preceding track, "Densities," and views it from many angles. The tune runs right into Monk's, where a link between the controlled oddness of Monk and Stillman's sense of surprise can be heard.
From there, the familiar Stillman emerges with "Folk Song," which might remind some listeners of his earlier "Psalms". "Deified" (the name is a palindrome, a compositional technique Stillman has used) has more of the floating, mysterious Stillman of yore, only with different instrumentation. "Today's Tomorrows Song" is a typically beautiful Stillman ballad with a very subtle pulse, while "The Brothers' Breakfast" completes the demonstration of how Stillman has subsumed Monk's essence. The Brothers' Breakfast is a very fine album in absolute terms, and just a hair less intense and evocative than what came before it, relatively speaking.
Trio Alto Volume One
Having begun his recording career almost entirely with original compositions, Stillman is perhaps using the standards set Trio Alto Volume One to demonstrate his improvisational abilities on familiar (and very familiar in "Body And Soul") material.
What emerges is a picture of a player who can swing one second and switch to being totally abstract the next. Stillman shows that he knows full well how to maintain contact with the original tune and hence pull the listener's attention back (assuming they know the original). Many tunes have a particular phrase or interval sequence that makes them quickly recognizable. Stillman has the knack, one that all good improvisers have, of first, knowing what the signature phrase is, and second, using it at just the right time to keep the listener on his toes.
Bassist Steve LaSpina, who is almost the house bassist at SteepleChase, and drummer Jeff Hirshfield (spelled correctly this time), provide rhythm support that is light and supple with just the right amount of intensity when necessary. Stillman was obviously having a good time during the recording, judging by the many vocalisms between phrases.
As one might have predicted, it is the treatment of "Body And Soul" that represents the distillation of what this kind of playing is about. In its own way, Stillman's version is as abstract as Coleman Hawkins' was considered back in 1939. It is all there: pure harmonic playing, hinting at the melody ever so slightly, but then playing the melody loud and clearin other words, really improvising.
Trio Alto makes an interesting comparison to the Konitz/Versace album mentioned above, and Stillman compares very well to the master from the point of view of truly improvising rather than just blowing the changes.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: Under The Influence; Christmas Socks; Johnny Rock; Densities; Crushed Ice; Gallop's Gallop; Folk Song; Deified; Today's Tomorrows Song; The Brothers' Breakfast.
Personnel: Loren Stillman: alto saxophone; Vic Juris: guitar; Gary Versace: B3 organ; Jeff Hirshfield: drums
Trio Alto Volume One
Tracks: Long Ago And Far Away; Turn Out The Stars; Red Cross; The State Of The World; All The Things You Are; Time Remembered; What Is This Thing Called Love; Body And Soul; The Touch Of Your Lips.
Personnel: Loren Stillman: alto saxophone; Steve LaSpina: bass; Jeff Hirshfield: drums.