Tenor-saxophonist John Petrucelli's Presence is an ambitious sprawl of an album. Petrucelli features a jazz quintet (with piano, bass, guitar and drums) together with a string quartet, then gives his tunes titles like "Field of Heaven," "Garden of Angels," and "Scallop Shell of Quiet," as if to warn the listener that the album carries more conceptual weight than the average blowing session. The vaguely Sun Ra-ish cover art is another indicator, and the 82 minute running time is a big ask for any artist, much less an up-and-comer. That's 200 teenage attention spans laid end to end, and even middle-aged folks might find their focus wandering a bit as the hour mark comes and goes.
All those worrisome signals aside, Presence turns out to be admirably energetic and compelling, less burdened by its conceptual apparatus than the cynics among us might expect. Part of the secret is that the strings mostly provide light commentary, and are far enough back in the mix that they never dominate the proceedings. Perhaps they're too far back in the mix -this is a live recording and a studio version of the material might have better balanced the elements. That said, the jazz unit's playing comes through vividly.
Petrucelli is a nimble player with a rounded, centered tone (it is possible that he's heard a Mark Turner album sometime in the last few years). It's not the most distinctive approach to the horn, and sometimes can be a warning sign of accomplished but safe and, ultimately, dull music-making. Luckily, Petrucelli gets caught up by the rising chord progressions and skittering rhythms of his songs and so the listener gets caught up, too. Several tunes end with him passionately spinning out lines over spiraling chords. The emotional force he conveys keeps Presence from turning into an academic exercise. His melodies may not often be memorable ("For One to Know" is a nice exception), but at least the harmonies of his songs go places (usually, they surge upward) and give the improvisers something to dig into. Drummer Gusten Rudolph is key: he plays Petrucelli's complicated rhythms with elan and sustains momentum over the album's lengthy run-time.
The opening and closing numbers veer towards etudes. It's not clear that Petrucelli makes a strong enough case for including the string quartet, and the concept tying this series of fine performances together eludes this reviewer. But the moment to moment music-making never bogs down and there are many glimmers of beauty here. One to look out for.
Prelude, Intentions, Field of Heaven, Bridge Not An End, Garden of Angels, Sly, Summon The Spirit, For One To Know, Scallop Shell of Quiet, Mercury Crossing.
John Petrucelli: tenor saxophone; Melvin Butler: guest tenor saxophone; Melissa Hernandez: violin; Ashley Freeburn: violin; Olga Taimonov: viola; Katya Janpoladyan: cello; Peter Park: guitar; Brett Williams: piano; Paul Thompson: bass; Gusten Rudolph: drums.