Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece’s New Album: Tuneful and Retro with an Edge
It’s hard to think of anybody who makes better jazz albums than alto saxophonist Ken Fowser and vibraphonist Behn Gillece Jazz being defined by improvisation, and magic being hard to bottle, so many studio efforts by jazz artists sound strained, rote or haphazard- Not these guys’ records: they have the livewire energy that you would expect from the duo in concert. There is absolutely nothing about their new one, Top Shelf, which is cutting edge, or for that matter references any jazz style after about 1965. But it is tuneful beyond belief: Christian McBride would call it “people music.” This band of journeymen plays with a singlemindedness and focus matched on few other studio efforts from recent months. Gillece, in particular, has a fondness for edgy chromatic vamps and the occasional biting modal interlude; likewise, Fowser is a no-nonsense tunesmith and purposeful player. Here they join forces with Steve Einerson on piano, Michael Dease on trombone, Dezron Douglas on bass and Rodney Green on drums.
Most of the compositions here are by Gillece. The albums opens with a biting swing tune, Slick, immediately setting the tone with an allusively slashing, modal Fowser solo, Dease taking it in a more bluesy direction, Gillece straddling between the two. Stranded in Elizabeth – at a Jersey studio, maybe? – is catchy as hell, with Gillece spiraling out ot the hook, Fowsser choosing his spots as Green rumbles and then lets Dease add an ironic edge.
Due Diligence, one of three tracks by Fowser, maintains a deliciously purist bluesiness, Einerson’s pinpoint solo being a highlight, Gillece taking it into more nebulous territory – then Dease channels Wycliffe Gordon with some LOL buffoonery. Ginger Swing builds suspense out of a wicked catchy vibraphone hook. hinting at a lickety-split swing that they finally leap into as Gillece and then Einerson go scampering in a blaze of precise chops. Unstopppable, another Fowser tune, is aptly titled, Gillece having a great time with a prowling, animatedly nocturnal solo before turning it over to Fowser, who takes it in an unexpectedly dark direction before they wind it up, anthemic and triumphant.
Discarded works a murky On Broadway feel. both Gillece and Douglas maintaining a gritty, clenched-teeth, modally-charged intensity. It might be the best song here, or at least the darkest. That could also be said about the slowly turbulent, resonant ballad For the Moment, with its achingly teasing crescendos, bittersweet Fowser sax and misterioso Einerson solo. And just when the jaunty, bossa-tinged Pequenina sounds like they’ve left the shadows behind, Fowser brings them back – he’s good at that. The title track makes syncopated bossa out of the blues, with yet another cool chromatic vamp; the album winds up with Proximity, engaging the whole band in the album’s most buoyant charts, switching between lickety-split swing and an almost marching midtempo rhythm.You will walk around all day humming these tunes to yourself. It will put you in a good mood. It’s one of the best albums of 2013 and it’s out now from Posi-Tone.
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