Doug Webb Slays With His Own Stuff
If you see a lot of jazz, you’re probably used to watching familiar faces run through familiar material and wondering to yourself, what if they were left to their own devices? What if they did their own stuff – would they take it to the next level? Doug Webb’s latest album Swing Shift is one answer to that question.
Back in April of 2009, the saxophonist sequestered himself in a Los Angeles studio for a marathon session with a rotating cast of characters. By any standard, the results were spectacularly successful, netting enough material for two good-naturedly energetic, expertly delivered albums of mostly standards, 2009’s Midnight and 2010’s Renovations…and this one. If edgy postbop jazz is your thing, this is your album: Posi-Tone definitely saved the best for last. Webb has chops that’ll make your eyeballs pop. Remember that old Coltrane line about how “everybody thinks I’m playing glissandos but they’re really arpeggios,” or something like that? Whether playing tenor or alto, Webb is on that level, technique-wise, rising with seemingly effortless ease from liquid crystal swirls to gritty, clenched-teeth squalls in places. But this isn’t a chops album – it’s a hot vibe album on a high-octane tip in the same vein as Freddie Hubbard’s Night of the Cookers.
Rhythmic shifts are key here, even as they gradually get into it with Mal Waldron’s Soul Eyes, done as a matter-of-factly swinging blues ballad. Webb takes it doublespeed in a split second, almost imperceptibly, setting up an incisively scampering Larry Goldings piano solo, then resuming his pace without breaking a sweat – or so it seems. Then they jump into the centerpiece of the album, the practically 23-minute Patagonia Suite, a co-write for Webb and bassist Stanley Clarke (who proves to be the perfect fit for this record, whether turning in tireless overtime walking scales, adding low-pressure buoyancy with judicious, juicy chords and even leading the band through a reggae-tinged interlude toward the end). Playing alto with a high, biting, practically snarling tone, Webb casually makes his way through steady eighth-note clusters built around a simple minor-key riff, to wailing squalls, to a dark, stern, straight-ahead, thoughtfully JD Allen-esque interlude that he ends completely unleashed. The architecture is just as smart as the playing, Webb assigning pianist Mahesh Balasooriya (and, to a lesser extent, Clarke) the tough role of following with long solos that echo the sax’s shift from methodical to completely unhinged. Both players register a bullseye, drummer Gerry Gibbs (who played the entire session) cleverly building suspense with his one deadpan, matter-of-fact solo.
In fact, the piece as a whole seems to be a series of variations on Frank Foster’s gorgeously edgy Simone, which is the track that follows: whether their version served as the prototype, or was intended as a coda, it works magically, with a jaw-dropping, supersonic cadenza by Balasooriya, incessant but almost imperceptible tempo shifts and a relentlessly bracing, modal attack by Webb.
They do Rogers and Hart’s Where or When as a trio with no drums, Joe Bagg playing piano with terse hints of stride: even here, Webb is still wired from track two and in edgy minor mode, which redeems this increasingly moldy oldie many times over. They follow that with a Webb/Gibbs duo, Rizone, swirling clusters versus steadily shuffling rhythm and wind up the album with another bracing Webb/Clarke collaboration, Apodemia, evocative (as much of this album is) of Kenny Garrett’s best 1990s-era work. As they do with Where or When, they take their time pulling it together, Clarke fueling the smoldering blaze with his chords, Bagg’s piano unveiling a rippling midnight ambience while Webb broodingly contemplates his next move, the band swaying expectantly underneath. Other than the first track, the tension never really lets up here. This isn’t late night sleepy jazz and it sure as hell isn’t boudoir jazz but as a shot of adrenaline after a rough day at work, it’s unbeatable. Lisa Simpson would be proud (Webb plays her sax parts on tv).