Straight Ahead: Jon Mayer & Grant Stewart

Jim Santella By

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Jon Mayer
So Many Stars
Reservoir Music

Grant Stewart
Young at Heart
Sharp Nine Records

The small, acoustic jazz combo can make a night out as memorable as the paintings that hang on your living room wall, each with its own tale to tell. Even straight-ahead jazz, with its bebop origins and mainstream focus, can appear in different colors. Here are two veterans with history: one pushes hard with force while the other prefers a smoother approach.

Pianist Jon Mayer grew up in New York, attending High School for the Arts in the '50s and winning a scholarship to study classical music at the Manhattan School of Music. He then immersed himself in the city's bebop scene, having the chance to work with some of the best and to create at length; John Coltrane even recorded two of Mayer's compositions in the late '50s. Then he dropped out, drug addiction taking its toll and costing Mayer 14 years before a reemergence in 1991 in Los Angeles, where he continues to wow local audiences with his propulsive technique. Two of Mayer's originals on So Many Stars, "Bopzilla" and "Rip Van Winkle," relate this unique history. From the mellow bossa of the session's title track to the fiery glow of "Jeannine" and the exotic flavor of "Nica's Dream," Mayer's trio expresses itself with alacrity. Bassist Rufus Reid solos with personal emotion and Mayer puts a lifetime of experience into each phrase, drummer Roy McCurdy underscoring the session with a logical foundation. Mayer's piano swings but bop-laced conversations, with an edge to every bite, rule the day.

Tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart gives his quartet plenty of room to stretch out during Young at Heart, his ninth album as leader. This session reaches back for classic pieces by Duke Ellington, Neal Hefti and Elmo Hope as well as fresh songs that introduce a few surprises. Stewart's brand of straight-ahead jazz remains laid-back and somewhat cool as the quartet rolls through its paces with an even approach. Even the leader's own "Shades of Jackie Mac," driven at a brisk tempo, comes complete with seamless phrases that melt into each other. Stewart's tenor speaks of silk and satin while pianist Tardo Hammer lends suitable harmonic language, bassist Peter Washington adding mainstream charm and drummer Joe Farnsworth coloring appropriately. On "Serenade to Sweden," for example, walking bass, block chords and syncopated sticks back the leader's tenor through a romp and glide; the foursome takes this one as if skating on the surface of a frozen pond where motion dovetails gracefully all day long. Peter Bernstein's "Jet Stream," like most of the session, drives with an up-tempo spark that represents the forward push of traditional jazz. However, with the leader's easy texture and the cohesiveness of his quartet, the music remains both gentle in nature and heartfelt.

Tracks and Personnel

So Many Stars

Tracks: Holy Land; You're My Everything; Nica's Dream; Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most; Jeannine; Rip Van Winkle; Bopzilla; So Many Stars; Blues by Five; Never Never Land; All Of You.

Personnel: Jon Mayer: piano; Rufus Reid: double bass; Roy McCurdy: drums.

Young at Heart

Tracks: Young at Heart; You're My Thrill; Roll On; Shades of Jackie Mac; Repetition; Serenade to Sweden; Modinha; Jet Stream.

Personnel: Grant Stewart: tenor saxophone; Tardo Hammer: piano; Peter Washington: bass; Joe Farnsworth: drums.

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