With You in Mind
is saxophonist Russ Nolan's sophomore effort as a leader, and benefits from the inclusion of pianist Kenny Werner's longstanding trio featuring drummer Ari Hoenig and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller, which simultaneously supports and challenges Nolan on a set of mostly his own compositions.
"Stand Clear of the Closing Doors" is a highlight, putting a clever touch on the theme of bustling city life that has long been a favorite of jazz musicians. Nolan and company evoke the frenetic pace of a subway ride, with metal-scraped cymbals and dissonant piano runs giving way to a swinging bebop head full of twists, turns and a fleet instrumental attack.
"Disheveled Waltz" offers an impressionistic breather, the group's gradually dissolving rhythms creating an ebb and flow that tumbles over bar lines while always sticking close to a memorable melodic contour. It's an enticing vehicle for Nolan's impressive soprano work, recalling at times Wayne Shorter's pungent, mysterious tone.
"Waiting" and "By the Way" are both marked by loose, quasi-Latin feels, from which the band launches to develop billowing excursions. The interaction of the musicians is complimentary yet provocative, their intuitive sparring varied and cliche-free.
While those tunes contain pleasant extrapolations on their main themes, other tracks such as "With You in Mind" and "Tales from the Head" have a discursive quality that seems to lack individualism. Though the darting interplay is well done, it misses an emotional connection that would separate these tunes from those on any given modern jazz record.
A similar problem troubles Nolan's version of John Coltrane's "Naima." Though he earns kudos for a unique rearrangement, the performance doesn't seem to convey the essential romance, sexuality or spiritual keening inherent in the composition. Once the band blasts through the melody, the track becomes somewhat indistinguishable. Granted, it's a tough task to take on one of Trane's most personal and often-played chestnuts with a fresh perspective, so Nolan deserves admiration for a bold endeavor that avoids simple regurgitation of the tenor titan's signature patterns.
Nolan's self-penned tributes to other heroes fare much better in the form of "Kilson's Groove," capturing the essence of drummer Billy Kilson's ebullient style with a funky yet trickily-accented hip-hop beat; and "Diatonicus," a brisk, bright swinger that effectively encapsulates the spirit of Thelonious Monk, using a loping sense of call-and-response. Again, Nolan's soprano playing is a particular standout here, as he throws in a sly quote of Monk's "Well You Needn't" and captures the stop/start motion of the dedicatee's singular sensibility.
Minor qualms aside, With You in Mind shows the promise of Nolan's development as a solid player with some appealing ideas, who definitely holds his own in the company of Werner's talented trio.