Cecil Payne turns seventy-seven this month. Most people who are lucky enough to reach such an advanced age have long since retired from their craft. Payne has chosen a different path and judging from the sturdy work on this disc he isn't showing many signs of slowing down in his twilight years. After over a half century in the jazz trenches he's still delivering his signature brand of versatility and style to his instrument. And as on his earlier Delmark releases he's shaped a band that effectively bridges the generations.
My first exposure to Payne's playing was on Coltrane's "Dakar where he rounded out a formidable horn section alongside Pepper Adams in a baritone sax combo that was tough to beat when that classic record was released and still is. Ever since hearing that album harboring a lasting appreciation for his oeuvre has been easy. Throughout his lengthy career he has balanced an enviable agility on the weighty reed with a rustic affinity for the blues and a gracious willingness to shape his sound to the setting he's in. He could play scalding hot runs or just as effortlessly change up and blow a breezy blue-tinged ballad. Over the intervening years Payne has unavoidably slowed a little in his attack, but he's traded some of the quicksilver veracity of youth for a sureness of tone that is contagious among his compatriots. The bucolic bite of his sax delivers the perfect impetus for the group to take flight.
Along for the ride is a solid crew of supporters. Alexander is no stranger to spirited blowing sessions and he delivers his usual high level of empathy and improvisational ingenuity. On many of the tunes he favors the lower registers of his horn and his lines fit snugly against Payne's own deep-toned musings. Mabern shares distinction along with Payne as another elder statesman of hard bop. His emotive accompaniment is frequently the common denominator in the relaxed approach the group takes on most of the numbers. Webber and Farnsworth fill in the rhythmic blanks with skill and sensitivity.
As for the program of tunes, they are mainly basic blowing vehicles, but the emphasis here is rightfully on inspired playing, not on compositional complexity. The opening "Spiritus Parkus lights the flames with rollicking solos from everyone save Farnsworth and over the course of the next sixty minutes the sextet continually delivers the goods. Standouts include the gentle ballad "Martin Luther King, Jr. and a dusky quartet reading of "Loverman, which features Payne as the only horn. "That's It Blues is another winner thanks mainly to Davis' cobalt slurs which slither deftly against Farnsworth's light cymbals. Regrettably Payne's featherweight flute only crops up Gershwin's "Delilah and would have been well served by more exposure. All things considered though this disc is a treat from start to finish and is easily recommended. Take a leisurely look through Payne's propitious window and you're guaranteed to be pleased by what you see.
Spiritus Parkus/ Martin Luther King, Jr./ James/ That?s It Blues/ Payne?s Window/ Southside Samba/ Lover Man/ Tune Up/ Delilah/ Hold Tight.
Recorded: August 17-18, 1998, Riverside Studio, Chicago, IL
Cecil Payne, baritone saxophone, flute; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; Steve Davis, trombone; Harold Mabern, piano; John Webber, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums.
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