The State of the Tenor 2009: AJ Kluth and Ricky Sweum

C. Michael Bailey By

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Saxophonists AJ Kluth and Ricky Sweum look more like the backfield from Friday Night Lights than they do jazz musicians. But jazz musicians they are, playing what may be heard as the logical, evolutionary result of post-bop: a dry ice eutectoid of smooth, free, avant-garde, cool and modal jazz. Their music is characterized by open composition with knotty, complex melodies. The fresh faces of Kluth and Sweum show a positive future for jazz and its continuing development on their respective debut albums.

AJ Kluth Quintet

Twice Now

Origin Records


Chicago-native AJ Kluth was educated at that city's DePaul University before freelancing around the Midwest and transcribing and self-publishing a book of Chris Potter solos. On Twice Now he leads a guitar anchored quintet through nine lengthy and provocative pieces, seven of which were composed by Kluth or guitarist Nick Ascher.

The simpatico between Kluth and Ascher extends from the pair's compositions to their respective performances. Although under Kluth's name, Twice Now is effectively a collaborative effort by the saxophonist and guitarist.

The relationship between the two, as well as with pianist Sean McCluskey, is defined on the Ascher composition "Red" that opens the disc. Over McCluskey's spare piano chording, Kluth and Ascher double on a devilishly complex melody line. While Kluth is more Michael Brecker than Wayne Shorter (or Sonny Rollins), Ascher is more John Abercrombie than John Scofield. These comparisons are loose at best as both artists have very characteristic sounds. Kluth sports a full-throated muscular tenor and sinewy soprano, while Ascher is distorted at the edges, giving his guitar a slight rock tone.

Kluth and Ascher achieve a delicate dance of counterpoint throughout the disc, easily heard on "A Time, Times, And Half Time" and "Wi Fi," the latter containing a lyrical solo by McCluskey on acoustic piano. "Quiet, Then Go" is a breezy Kluth ballad accentuating the stronger points of Kluth and Ascher's slower soloing. Chick Corea's "Litha" fits perfectly with the originals as a smart and edgy piece not fully smooth at the edges, providing just enough bite for pleasure.

Ascher's airy ballad "Sleeping" dovetails well into one of the more inspired covers in recent memory, Thom York's "Atoms For Peace."

Visit AJ Kluth on the web.

Pulling Your Own Strings

Ricky Sweum

Origin Records


There are several similarities between AJ Kluth and Ricky Sweum's Origin Arts recordings. Both recordings find the principals doubling on tenor and soprano saxophones. Both recordings host prominent roles for guitarists, in Sweum's case, Wayne Wilkerson. Both recordings feature a majority of finely crafted jazz originals, fresh as spring and sharp as a dry Fall day. Where the two differ is the foundation of their playing.

Where Kluth is investigating the edges of his art, Sweum approaches his with greater care, nodding toward tradition, specifically the influence of Sonny Rollins. Sweum comes by this honestly. Raised in Eugene, Oregon, Sweum joined the United States Air Force, performing with the Falconaires in Colorado and the US Air Force Band of the West in San Antonio, Texas. In between, he attended William Paterson University and toured with various other bands.

It is refreshing to hear a tenor saxophonist escaping John Coltrane's gravitational pull to orbit around the Son. "Hot Sonny Day" tips its hat to Rollins by existing as proto-bop over standard chord changes. This is about as old fashioned as Sweum gets. "Under Sonny's Bridge" is suitably named for its nod towards Rollins' "St. Thomas" and "Global Warming." It has a humid Caribbean feel that encourages swaying and dancing about.

Wilkerson is a well-behaved acolyte of Joe Pass and Herb Ellis. His tone is precise and his playing accurate and clean, even at fast tempo. He provides Sweum with the harmonic foil that Ascher allows pianist Sean McCluskey to offer AJ Kluth on Twice Now. Sweum's music is sweetly unassuming while perfectly capable of attracting attention.

Visit Ricky Sweum on the web.

Tracks and Personnel

Twice Now

Tracks: Red; Revolutions; A Time, Times, And Half A Time; Wi Fi; Quiet, Then Go; Litha; Coliseum; Sleeping; Atoms For Peace.

Personnel: AJ Kluth: tenor and soprano saxophones; Nick Ascher: electric guitar; Sean McCluskey: keyboards; Cory Biggerstaff: bass; Stephan Czestachowski: drums.

Pulling Your Own Strings

Tracks: Yesterday's Tomorrow; Hot Sonny Day; Nice Pants; Pulling Your Own Strings; The Dance Etterno; Sunset Iraq; Under Sonny's Bridge; It's Indicative; State Of Acceptance; Piebald City; Ben And Jerry's Delight.

Personnel: Ricky Sweum: tenor and soprano saxophones; Wayne Wilkerson: guitar; Jason Crowe: bass; Henrique De Almeida: drums.

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