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Nick Hempton: Trio Stonk: Live At Smalls

David A. Orthmann By

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On April 20, 2017, tenor and alto saxophonist Nick Hempton, bassist George DeLancey, and drummer Dan Aran played a gig at Smalls Jazz Club in New York City. Fortunately, it was recorded and recently released by the house label, SmallsLIVE. Although Hempton is the leader, the sixty minutes of music amounts to a collective accomplishment. The record documents a band that sounds raw, unprocessed, unfiltered—in short, the antithesis of any attempt at the unattainable ideal of studio perfection. With one exception, Aran's unaccompanied solo, "Transition Vamp," during every one of the disc's seven tracks the trio sounds like a group of wily veterans savoring every minute of a gabfest, playing exactly what they want without any regard for the consequences, and virtually flinging themselves into the embrace of an attentive audience.

That said Trio Stonk: Live At Smalls doesn't really feel like a blowing session and, for that matter, isn't particularly uninhibited. In addition to a program that, for the most part, emphasizes the blues and conventional chord progressions, not to mention a tip of the hat to Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia" ("Droppin' A Franklin") and Sonny Rollins' "Valse Hot" ("Not The Sort Of Jazz That Stewart Lee Likes"), there's something else afoot. Even when acknowledging how long some of the tracks stretch out ("Droppin' A Franklin," "Not The Sort of Jazz That Stewart Lee Likes"), the quickness, wit and sensitivity of the band's interaction (every track excepting "Transition Vamp"), the not infrequent changes in tempo and emphasis ("A Blues To You, Rudy," "Droppin' A Franklin," "A Whistlin' Blues") not to mention an inspired bout of free blowing ("Not The Sort Of Jazz That Stewart Lee Likes"), this is a profoundly grounded, organic record. Hempton's, DeLancey's and Aran's explorations are remarkably sure-footed. It's a pleasure to hear each track evolve in an assured, unforced manner, even while compelling points of view and details emerge on a constant basis.

The evolutionary character of the tracks is rooted in the individual contributions of the trio as well as their interactions—including the presence of both Hempton and Aran during most of DeLancey's meaty solos, especially on "A Blues To You, Rudy" and "Droppin' A Franklin." Aran occupies a flexible zone somewhere between unobtrusive timekeeping and balls to the wall confrontation. Shedding his skin on nearly every chorus, he always has something new and novel going on, but these developments usually don't jump out and clamor for attention. Conversely, an extended trading of fours between Aran and Hempton on "Not The Sort of Jazz That Stewart Lee Likes" brings to mind the antic slapstick of Hanna's and Barbera's Tom and Jerry cartoons. There's a tremendous amount of strength and vitality in the ways in which DeLancey animates the music's foundation and communicates with Hempton and Aran. For example, during the ballad "Poor Butterfly," there are times when he's speaking directly to Hempton without abandoning a supportive role. An equal partner in a trio of giants, DeLancey's contributions can't be taken for granted.

Hempton has his share of notey, frenetic, hard blowing moments, yet by and large he's a somewhat deliberate improviser. There are instances when it sounds as if he's carving phrases out of granite; in other cases, simply pulling them out of thin air. Every solo feels like a journey in which he rarely telegraphs his intentions, The first seventy-five seconds of "A Blues To You, Rudy" the disc's opening track, finds Hempton alone, gradually working his way toward something—medium tempo swing—without showing his hand. Everything he plays is both suspended in space and loosely connected, the silences between his phrases almost as significant as the notes themselves. Later on in the track, in the company of DeLancey and Aran, during a long, rather complicated discourse, Hempton gives the impression of pulling things apart, shaking them loose for the fun of it, and then putting them back together again. All of this activity entails a substantial amount of exertion, sweat, and more than a little gray matter, but no sign of strain.

Trio Stonk: Live At Smalls is filled with serious music that doesn't take itself too seriously. In the middle of "Droppin' A Franklin," when they reach the point in the "A Night In Tunisia" reference where it's nearly impossible not to anticipate an approximation of Charlie Parker's famous, breathtakingly virtuosic break, Hempton flips the script by delivering a handful of smartly placed notes and a whole lot of silence. Moments like these are the norm in a recording that, despite employing somewhat conventional methods, often defies expectations.


Track Listing: A Blues To You, Rudy; Poor Butterfly; Droppin' A Franklin; Transition Vamp; A Whistlin' Blues; Not The Sort Of Jazz That Stewart Lee Likes; When I Grow Too Old To Dream.

Personnel: Nick Hempton: Saxophones; Dan Aran: Drums; George DeLancey: bass.

Title: Trio Stonk: Live At Smalls | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: SmallsLIVE

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