An enthusiastic crowd filled the Los Angeles Times Central Court at LACMA to cheer on hometown heroes, The Michael Session Sextet. After more than a dozen years with the event it could be renamed Michael Session Court, and no one attending the Friday night weekend kickoff would have voted against a re-christening.
Session remains a dominant soloist, blessed with vivid musical imagination, A- Line technique, and an apparent passion to construct heart stopping thrill rides on the saxophone. Firmly rooted in classic Blue Note, the sextet's front line played crisp harmonized arrangements based in blues and uptown bebop. A generous leader, he seems to appreciate and enthuse over his bandmates' solos as much as his own.
Little wonder when he's joined by the likes of Phil Ranelin and Steve Smith. Ranelin holds his own zip code for cool, finessing his trombone solos with a mellow tone and rounded attack, breezing without turning a hair. Smith's more austere approach on trumpet, though no less inspired, provides highlighting contrasts and his own incisive improvisations.
Running up the backs of this blow fest, Session's rhythm section knew their boss. In demand pianist John Rangel soloed with both hands, creating rapid fire ideas delivered multi voiced and orchestrated as it hit him. Youthful veteran powerhouse drummer Karon Harrison joyfully prowled pounding. Late addition, Edward Livingston's bass inspired bursts of applause just keeping time, his solos provoked frenzy.
Alto sax and bass played a sly blues picked up by the frontline. At first, Session seemed to be warming up, but within a few measures he gleefully melted front row faces, building to circular breathed heat lightning. The reedist counts one of a handful of sax players utilizing the technique that uses it to express carloads of ideas, rather than just demonstrating the technique. Smith played his variations more soberly and Ranelin got stretchy with time. Good brush work from Harrison.
On his own "Short Stop, as he did throughout the evening, Sesshin perversely approaches a solo from a position far away from the theme, the solo traveling to it, with remarkable scenery conjured along the way. Harold Land's oddly constructed "Short Subject served Rangel and Session as an obstacle course to sweep through. Ranelin's "Freddy's Groove had Harrison throwing bombs, and Smith ready to blow. Sessions on tenor gave his best runaway train impression on Hank Mobley's "Infra-red, with Smith fueling momentum and Harrison in thunder mode. Their ensemble was impeccable.
Nate Morgan's "Tapscottian Waltz slowed it down with Rangel's dark solo intro. Session on soprano painted bright ornamentations on the sullen rhythm section and serious supporting horns. Smith gave a soulful cry, applause punctuated Ranelin's low-key moan, and Rangel played a wistful meditation. With Ranelin and Smith standing down, the Session quartet tackled a request, "Take 5. Hard to imagine Brubeck and Desmond ever finding the whipsaw excitement mined by Session on alto throughout the finale.
Decent sound despite some courtyard echo and amplification variances, Session & Co.'s missionary work on behalf of Horace Tapscott's Black Classical Music fell on willing ears and by the end everyone believed in the cause.