Nate Birkey: The Mennonite and Ballads

Jim Santella By

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Based in Southern California, trumpeter Nate Birkey has been affiliated with both the mainstream and avant-garde scenes since he finished his studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The leader, who released both albums this year, grew up in Colorado, where he began studying piano at an early age and "fell in love with" his father's trumpet in the 5th grade. Birkey's cohesive band has been together for several years, and has learned to anticipate one another's actions. The Household Ink label was founded in 1987 to support the new music band Headless Household. Birkey has appeared on several of their albums. An eclectic group, the band crosses genres to include whatever they wish. Their creative sessions allow for growth in the jazz world while remaining true to its roots.

The Mennonite

Nate Birkey's trumpet rings with a clarion tone, as his quintet interprets straight-ahead ideas. Acoustic, and derived both from jazz and blues traditions, his session favors original compositions. Birkey's sense of the modern mainstream includes light Latin reflections, moody trumpet daydreams, cohesive ensemble play, and a bit of adventurous growth. The album is a clear winner. Nods to Miles Davis are everywhere. Alongside Birkey's trumpet, his pianist, tenor saxophonist, and bassist carry a fair share of the melody. Each displays an honest respect for tone quality, and everybody solos. Samples are available from his web site. When the trumpeter steps forward, his ballad tone takes over. There are classical music overtones. Several of the pieces proceed suitelike, telling stories through their myriad mood changes. Irving Berlin's "What'll I Do" contrasts with the rest of Birkey's stellar session. The leader's vocal presentation with piano accompaniment leaves behind all of the favorable displays of attention to tone evident elsewhere. The title track - a loose, bouncy affair - adds guitars to color with a contemporary brush. Guest Joe Woodard elevates Birkey's straight-ahead piece to the leading edge. This is where today's jazz should be. The tradition remains intact, while familiar elements from rock, pop, and world music serve to provide an avenue for growth.

Track Listing: The Fool in the Tree; Delirio; Penelope; Before She Goes Away; Northern Lights; Hollow; Song Without Words; Prohibition; The Mennonite; What'll I Do.Collective

I'll Be Seeing You; Nature Boy; For All We Know; Dreaming of Memphis; Hi Lili, Hi Lo; But Not For Me; I'll Be Around; My Ship; I Will Wait For You; You Don't Know What Love Is.

Personnel: Nate Birkey- trumpet, vocal & piano on "What'll I Do," added percussion on "Song Without Words;" Justin Claveria- tenor saxophone; Jamieson Trotter- piano, keyboard on "The Mennonite;" Jim Connolly- acoustic bass; Cougar Estrada- drums, percussion; Joe Woodard- guitars on "The Mennonite."


Nate Birkey sings each of the classic songs on his ballads album. Like Michael Franks and Chet Baker, he possesses a fragile, upper-register voice that floats lightly on the breeze. And, like both singers, he colors his performance with light pastels. Piano, bass and drums back him lightly. Birkey has taken care to avoid messin' with these familiar tunes. Interludes by trumpet, guitar, bass, vibraphone or piano settle in nicely and complement the singer. His straightforward delivery, however, cries out for some kind of adventure. The eerie guitar sustains on "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" seem to indicate a desire to alter the scene somewhat. For this one piece, a mild-mannered cabaret mood is surrounded by strange electric guitar sensations. It's as if their late night concert hall were experiencing the front lines of a winter storm. "I Will Wait For You" offers a similar bit of adventure. Birkey sings this one with a straight face. Like Baker, his vocal accuracy comes and goes. And, like Baker, he plays the melody on open trumpet with a respect for tonal beauty. A lover of straight-ahead improvisation, Birkey ends the arrangement with straight-ahead fun. The piece is accented in places by eerie guitar lines. It's one way to infuse something different into an arrangement, and it works. Throughout the session, the band supports by improvising brief solos, and each member finds a way to add something fresh. Whether it's quoting Monk during a Kurt Weill song, clicking a drum cadence on an Alec Wilder tune, or waxing acoustic Latin via a Gershwin number, these Household Ink artists provide mild adventures. Birkey's ballad album features his voice alongside his open and muted trumpet. While due respect is maintained for melody, the singer's uneven vocal performance hampers an otherwise favorable session.

Nate Birkey- trumpet, vocals, percussion; Jamieson Trotter- piano; Jim Connolly- acoustic bass; Cougar Estrada- drums, percussion; Ruben Estrada- vibraphone, piano; Daniel Zimmerman- electric guitar; Matt Wrobel- acoustic guitar; Joe Woodard- electric guitar.


Title: The Mennonite and Ballads | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Birkey Music


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