In a move that on first glance seems more aimed at garnering him a broader audience than anything else, British sax legend Stan Sulzmann is teamed with a dream team of American players including pianist Marc Copland, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart for The Jigsaw. But if the grouping smells suspiciously of "session gig," one listen to this outstanding disc is enough to dispel such skepticism. Truth be told, Copland has a relationship with Sulzmann that goes back over twenty-five years, and while Grenadier and Stewart may be newcomers to Sulzmann's distinctive playing and writing style, you'd be hard pressed to tell. The Jigsaw may not win any awards for breaking new ground, but in the realm of post bop it simply doesn't get any better than this.
One of the most highly regarded musicians in Britain, Sulzmann has a résumé that includes work with Michael Brecker and Gil Evans, but perhaps his most enduring relationship has been with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, whose title tune closes out the album. Sulzmann's style is, in some ways, the lyrical equivalent of Wheeler's own melancholy melodicism, and the two have teamed up numerous times, including work on '02's outstanding Ordesa , a trio date featuring Sulzmann, Wheeler and guitarist John Parricelli.
But The Jigsaw is the first record in a number of years to feature Sulzmann as leader and primary composer, and it paints a vivid picture of an artist whose solos tell compelling stories. "Figurine," for example, is a dark ballad that would not feel completely out of place in the Ralph Towner songbook, with a sense of delicate drama that never becomes melo drama. Sulzmann, heard on soprano, delivers a solo that manages to swing in its own quiet way.
Copland continues to be a most intuitive accompanist. In the past couple of years he has recorded with artists including Gary Peacock, Greg Osby, Kenny Wheeler, John Abercrombie and Dave Liebman. In each case his own sensitive, impressionistic, and at times abstract sensibilities seem to at once meld with those of the artists he is teamed with, while at the same time asserting his own musical personality. On "Jack Stix," which has just the slightest of Latin overtones in the theme, Copland asserts himself as a distinct personality who has evolved far beyond his original influences of Evans, Jarrett and Hancock.
Grenadier and Stewart make, quite simply, one of the best young rhythm sections around. Stewart in particular mines the same territory first carved out by Jack DeJohnette, but he brings a sense of melody all too rarely heard from drummers.
The Jigsaw could have been just another session but instead, with fine writing from Sulzmann, Copland, Stewart and Wheeler, the interplay is all the more uncanny for the fact that this group only convened for two short days. Unquestionably one of the best post bop releases of the year, Sulzmann's The Jigsaw will hopefully hip North American audiences to what the British have known all along.
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