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Jerome Jennings: The Beast

Dan Bilawsky By

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Jerome Jennings has occupied the drum throne on plenty of high profile gigs since arriving in New York just over a decade ago, working with everybody from vocalist Paula West to bassist Christian McBride and trumpeter Bria Skonberg to saxophonist Craig Handy. But his is a name that still may not be familiar to many jazz fans, as he's preferred those supporting roles to playing the leading man. He's been biding his time, waiting for just the right moment to make his first stand, and that moment is now. Jennings has brought the The Beast to life, and nobody is likely to forget who he is after encountering this one

For those who've appreciated Jennings' work in other bands, The Beast will be a welcome opportunity to hear him expand on what he's brought to those groups; for those who know nothing about Jennings, this will be a massive eye-opener and an introduction to a monster talent. He's a drummer who's well-schooled in hard bop and well-versed in modern jazz dialects, a composer who puts forward his ideas with clarity, and a leader who knows what he wants and how to get it.

The Beast awakens with "Love The Drums," a winner from the pen of Jon Burr that finds Jennings satisfying by dipping into Buhaina's bag. Everything from the deep-seated shuffle groove to the press rolls seems to nods to Art Blakey, but Jennings doesn't aim to present himself as a carbon copy of that master drummer. Instead, he brings his own style into the tradition, evident in how he fills many of the open spaces between the horn hits at song's beginning and end. His is a brand of playing that's strength leavened by finesse and past fortified by present.

Jennings marks himself as an eclectic by following the opener with his arrangement of New Edition's "Cool It Now." He turns the R&B leaning original version on its head, transforming it into something all its own. There's a chorale-like opening, complete with dramatic pause and a Max Roach-esque tom break; there's a "Poinciana"-esque beat that merges with McBride's hip lines and supports Sean Jones' melodious flugelhorn work; and there's a ramp up in energy that eventually sees release and return to mellower form. Who knew that all of that could come from the New Edition template? Jerome Jennings, that's who.

The seven songs that follow further broaden the scope of this album. "Ice Cream Dreams" reshapes Lester Waas' version of Arthur Pryor's "The Whistler And His Dog"—a.k.a. the "Mister Softee" ice cream truck music—into a buoyant waltz that finds Jennings cutting loose over a vamp, "You Don't What Love Is" puts guest vocalist Jazzmeia Horn into the spotlight, and Ben Webster's "Did You Call Her Today?" pleases with a cheery, swinging gait. Then the final four tracks up the ante, in power and/or emotional terms. Freddie Hubbard's "The Core" is a show of force that opens on a McBride solo introduction and reaches its apex with Jennings' most ferocious soloing on the album, "Cammy's Smile" is a heartfelt balladic nod to the daughter of the late Tony Reedus, the title track is an intense autobiographical number born of an unwarranted police stop that features bravura displays from tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley and Jennings, and "New Beginnings" serves as a coda to the album and the title track, ending things with a strong spoken message courtesy of a speech from actor-activist Jesse Williams from the 2016 BET Awards.

Many albums released at the tail end of the year tend to get lost in the shuffle, both in terms of critical acknowledgement and commercial terms, and it would be a horrible shame for that to happen to this one. It's certainly one of the last great musical gifts that 2016 has to offer, and it deserves to be played loud and proud. It's as good as they come for debuts, and on par with the best out there at any stage.

Track Listing: Love The Drums; Cool It Now; Ice Cream Dreams; You Don't Know What Love Is; Did You Call Her Today; The Core; Cammy's Smile; The Beast; New Beginnings.

Personnel: Jerome Jennings: drums, percussion (9); Sean Jones: trumpet, flugelhorn (2); Howard Wiley: tenor saxophone; Dion Tucker: trombone; Christian Sands: piano; Christian McBride: bass; Jazzmeia Horn: vocals (4).

Title: The Beast | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Self Produced

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