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Saxophone Summit: Saxophone Summit: Visitation

John Kelman By

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After two recordings for Telarc—2004's Gathering of Spirits, with the late Michael Brecker, and 2008's Seraphic Light, with Ravi Coltrane assuming the position vacated by Brecker following his untimely passing the previous year—Saxophone Summit is back with Visitation. Funded by the (for jazz) early crowd-funding ArtistShare imprint, it demonstrates the difference between recording for a relatively major label and one where the group can, it seems, call all the shots.

Not that the previous recordings were in any way artistic compromises—Seraphic Light was already a more experimental recording than the slightly more centrist Gathering of Spirits—but the differences on Visitation are many, even as the group retains the unmistakable collective sound of its members, in particular the front line that, in addition to Coltrane, also features Dave Liebman and Joe Lovano—a triple threat if ever there was one.

While the sextet's previous recordings featured compositions from all the front line members, in addition to occasional contributions from pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart, there were also significantly reworked versions of music from John Coltrane's vast repertoire that helped to define the underlying premise of the group. This time it's all-original and totally egalitarian all the way, with Visitation's six tracks representing one each from Saxophone Summit's six members. The spirit of Coltrane cannot help but loom over this saxophone-heavy group, but this time it's less overt, even as Saxophone Summit delivers its freest album yet, one where almost every tune eschews time, changes...or sometimes both.

While less intense overall, its Coltrane touchstone is in the late saxophone giant's intrinsic spirituality, a feeling that underscores the entire session. On the simmering heat of Ravi Coltrane's "The Message," a gorgeously written theme for soprano saxophone (Coltrane), tenor saxophone (Liebman) and alto clarinet (Lovano) opens up into freer terrain for a brief but finely honed solo from Markowitz that, with the horns acting as a rallying point, leads to a similarly liberated turn from McBee before the three horns return, this time for a spirited free-for-all that, bolstered by the responsively tumultuous Hart, also demonstrates just how much everyone in this group is constantly listening; freer music this may be, but never without purpose, and always predicated on some kind of structure, albeit in as oblique a manner as Saxophone Summit has ever been.

Liebman's "Partition" is, perhaps, a follow-on to the kind of music he's written before like Redemption: Live in Europe's "WTC," the more abstract, near-new music composition that appeared on this 2007 Hatology release's documentation of a reunited Quest, the longstanding group in which Liebman was a member (along with Hart) in the '80s and '90s. Combining freedom and form, there are individual a cappella and accompanied solos for the three saxophonists, but also some of Liebman's most compelling writing for three horns alone together that demonstrates lack of time and changes need not imply chaos or cacophony; it can, in fact, mean truly powerful beauty.

Lovano's opening title track is more reckless in its abandon, while Hart's "Balkis" is a different kind of exploration of similar harmonic space, darker-hued in disposition. Markowitz's "Point" is the album's most extreme track, with Liebman delivering his most unfettered soprano solo of the set, while McBee's "Consequence closes the set on a more tranquil note, his arco bass a thing of beauty made all the more dramatic when he switches to pizzicato for the album's most time and changes-centric moment, one where Coltrane even briefly quotes his father's introduction to the classic A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1965) before passing the baton to Markowitz for another solo that, as is true with every date on which he participates, suggests an artist who continues to deserve far broader recognition.

It's hard to know whether or not Telarc had anything to do with the more accessible nature of Saxophone Summit's first two recordings; sometimes it's just a matter of where the musicians are at a particular point in time—nothing more and nothing less. For whatever reason, Saxophone Summit has decided to take a left turn into its most abstruse, open-ended music to date with Visitation. What makes it such a fully rewarding listen is, however, that as liberated as it often becomes, it's never without underlying definition—and with a dynamic range as wide as the musicians' knowledge is deep, it never loses sight of the collective's concept...and the importance of maintaining a conceptual focus, whether it's exploring more expressionistic extremes or impressionistically disposed climes.

Track Listing: Visitation; Balkis; The Message; Partition; Point; Consequence.

Personnel: Joe Lovano: tenor saxophone (1, 4, 5), G soprano saxophone (2), alto clarinet (3, 6); Ravi Coltrane: tenor saxophone (1, 2, 4-6); Dave Liebman: soprano saxophone (1, 2, 4-6), tenor saxophone (3); Phil Markowitz: piano; Cecil McBee: bass; Billy Hart: drums.

Title: Saxophone Summit: Visitation | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: ArtistShare


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