Philadelphia saxman Ron Kerber may be making his debut as a leader on 'Round in Circles , but he shows nothing but a veteran's poise on this collection of nine of his own original compositions. Kerber plays alto, tenor and soprano sax, and he demonstrates his aptitude for all three horns over an incredibly sympatico rhythm section of his fellow Philadelphians (drummer Joe Nero, bassist Howie Thompson, and a alternating tag-team of de facto Dreambox house pianist Jim Ridl and vibes player Tony Miceli).
This group has a tremendous chemistry; a lot of jazz sessions have a relaxed, after-hours feel, but the music here feels not so much relaxed as imbued with a knowing, mature calm that emanates from Kerber and is grasped and responded to by the rest of the band. Kerber has a lot to say, but he isn't going to stumble by pouring it all out too urgently. There's a beatitude and quiet strength in his sound and a logical sense of inevitability in the way his solo ideas develop. Nero's understated but unerring; he and Kerber each play behind the beat at times and this collective flirtation with inertia produces a remarkable tension. The music's well-served by Glenn Barratt's fine engineering. It's perfectly recorded and mixed, sonically well above the norm.
Kerber's compositions are very good. The title track is a fantastic song with a hypnotic, repeated motif that inspires some great alto work from the leader (indeed, I think I like his alto playing best on this CD), and Miceli's vibes solo here manages to get right into the heart of the song. "Berliner Brau" offers a boppish theme with some appropriate Monkisms from pianist Ridl, although Kerber's alto here sounds more like Jackie McLean than Charlie Parker. "Via Dolorosa" is a stately, doleful dirge with alternating solos from Kerber and Ridl where their rapport is overwhelming: so close is their communion that the listener feels almost as though he is eavesdropping on a private conversation.
My favorite song, though, is the grooving "Uncharacteristic of You," which has some great walking bass from Thompson and an unusual structure where unconventional lengths of the tune's sections produce a strange off-kilter frisson. Finally, there's the album's emotional centerpiece, the majestic tenor meditation "While We Slept," which brings it to a fitting and hopeful conclusion.
'Round in Circles is an ambitious recording that, thanks to good material and band chemistry, succeeds on its own terms. I wonder what Kerber sounds like on other people's tunes. Maybe we'll find out on his next album...?
1. Jofa (for Joe Farrell) 2. Berliner Brau 3. 'Round in Circles 4. Via Dolorosa 5. Uncharacteristic of You 6. Freddie 'n Me 7. Ariel 8. Forty Days 9. While We Slept
Ron Kerber: saxophones; Jim Ridl: piano; Tony Miceli: vibes; Howie Thompson: bass; Joe Nero: drums
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