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Chris Oatts: Personalities


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Chris Oatts: Personalities
Saxophonist Chris Oatts is a graduate of the jazz program at Temple University's Boyer College of Music and Dance and the nephew of revered saxophonist—and faculty member of Temple University—Dick Oatts. This reviewer heard Chris Oatts at Chris' Jazz Café (similarity in the names purely coincidental) in September, 2021, with his quintet featuring one of his teachers and mentors, Terell Stafford, on trumpet. In that set, Oatts stayed within the bebop/hard bop traditions and showed exceptional sophistication, inventiveness, and resilience in his playing. His debut release as a leader was Chris Oatts First Quintet (Self Produced, 2017).

Oatts' new album Personalities is a tour de force nonet production which veers between small group ambience and a big band flair, similar to the arrangements of Norman David's Philly-based Eleventet. Asked about the arrangements on his album, Oatts cited Norman David, Elio Villafranca and Dick Oatts as inspirations and mentors.

Despite the height of the COVID pandemic in 2021, Oatts brought together a top shelf caché of musicians for an energetic and brilliantly arranged recording that is of unwavering stimulation and interest throughout. His own liner note, which link each tune to an everyday personal experience, imply they might be tone poems, but they are really just well-crafted songs that use the experiences as jumping off points. It's all music for music's sake, as the band members are given free reign for improvising within carefully crafted sections that embody a big band sound.

The opening number, "Alley Birds," is vaudevillian dance invention with laid back improvising in the hard bop tradition, featuring Oatts on saxophone, Stafford on trumpet, and Sam Harris on bass in a small group quintet format. It shows how those early theatrical expressions of jazz from the 1920s can still fuel the fire.

Oatts describes "Dragon Night" as moving "between mischievous and nefarious" (Jung's "Trickster" archetype?). Following a lengthy soprano saxophone solo by Oatts, the energy builds up, especially in Anwar Marshall's "nefarious" drums. Pianist Tim Brey inserts a gentler kind piano solo, and then the Trickster's disturbing energy returns.

"Building Blocks" begins with a postmodern riff that creates an off-center syncopated rhythm for the piece. Brey's piano solo complements the raucous energies of the horns. The piece concludes with the big band sound.

Joe Henderson's standard, "Shade of Jade," is performed straight ahead, almost a quote of the Henderson version, again with the big band sound erupting. John Shaw joins Stafford in the trumpet "section," and Chris Lewis contrinutes a saxophone solo, while Oatts interposes his own intricate sax improvisations in places. He does fine interactive work with pianist Brey. The piece ends with a burst of en masse improvising by the full ensemble.

"Jean's Scene" is one of those countless "my girlfriend" tunes in the jazz literature. Wonderfully spontaneous and inventive drum work by Marshall makes the otherwise mundane playing of the others more fulfilling.

Next, we have a fascinating arrangement of Richard Rodgers' "Bewitched," which captures the meaning of that word rather than the song itself. Distinctly unlike the version from the Broadway Show Pal Joey, Oatts gives us a romp like riding in the saddle of an unruly horse. The arrangement might owe something in the way of surprises to Norman David's writing for his Eleventet. There is a masterful trumpet solo by Stafford with the big band sound backing him up. And it was worth waiting for trombonist Nick Lombardelli to dish out a colorful trombone solo. This crazy version of "Bewitched" is nonetheless very well-crafted, and the screaming ending is spectacular, perhaps a toast to Stafford's blasts on the trumpet.

"Philly Smash Tune" is purely and simply a swinging arrangement of what could be a hard bop standard. Anwar Marshall's solo again shows he is someone to keep an ear on. Drummer Marshall and pianist Brey serve as perfect foils for the brass and reeds. Oatts then provides a beautifully-toned arrangement of Stephen Sondheim's bittersweet ballad "Not While I'm Around." Again, there is a short but sweet solo by trombonist Lombardelli.

Next up: "Sweet Prince" is almost a contrafact for Juan Tizol and Duke Ellington's famous "Caravan." Surprisingly as we go along with the plagiarism, we hear the band just clapping their hands in a different rhythm, and the ensuing solo by Stafford gives a feeling of gospel music, with Stafford as the preacher, as does a baritone saxophone solo by Josh Lee echoing the groaning sound of the great Pepper Adams. The interposing of gospel in the midst of a Middle Eastern genre is also a brilliant teaching moment, especially about Ellington.

Capping the recording is Burke and Van Heusen's "Personalities," which harks back to the start of the album, played as a show tune. It features a classic and classy upright bass solo by Sam Harris.

If this album is any indication, Chris Oatts is going to be not only a fine saxophonist on the circuit, but we can also look forward to his emergence as a composer and arranger, possibly striving for the likes of the great Vince Mendoza—see for example, Homecoming (Jazzline, 2017)—in the interweaving of small group improvising and big band sonorities. The album is also a tribute to our Philadelphia-based jazz musicians who time after time generate excitement and a sense of beauty.

Track Listing

(all compositions by Chris Oatts, except where noted all arrangements by Chris Oatts) Alley Birds; Dragon Night; Building Blocks; Shade of Jade (Joe Henderson); Jean’s Scene; Bewitched (Richard Rogers); Philly Smash Tune; Not While I’m Around (Stephen Sondheim); Sweet Prince; Personality (Johnny Burke and Jimmy van Heusen).


Chris Oatts: saxophone; Terell Stafford: trumpet; Tim Brey: piano; Sam Harris: piano; Anwar Marshall: drums; Chris Lewis : saxophone; Josh Lee: saxophone; Nick Lombardelli: multi-instrumentalist; John Shaw: trumpet.

Album information

Title: Personalities | Year Released: 2022 | Record Label: BCM&D Records

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