New Jazz Releases Embrace the Present & Celebrate the Past

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I’ve written before and often about saxophonist John Coltrane, whose music I discovered as a 16-year old and who remains my greatest musical love to this day. The jazz giant’s influence—both musical and spiritual—continues to resonate decades after his premature death in 1967. You can hear him in Pharoah Sanders’s music or in Azar Lawrence’s beautiful playing. I could also hear Coltrane’s influence in the work of two saxophonists I recently discovered, and I wanted to spotlight their excellent new albums here. They both feature fantastic players committed to sonic beauty and upholding great jazz traditions. Each honors the legacy of those masters who came before.

First up is Houston native Paul Carr with his latest album The Real Jazz Whisperer. A dedicated educator, Carr founded the Jazz Academy of Music and serves as the director of the Gettysburg College Jazz Ensemble. Allyn Johnson (piano), Michael Bowie (bass), and veteran drummer Lewis Nash join Carr on The Real Jazz Whisperer. When listening to the new record, you can detect the players’s sense of commitment and respect for the past and for their leader. In fact, the title track by Allyn Johnson is a tribute to Carr, a “whisperer” who leads students through gentle persuasions and hints. It is a powerful and committed recording that sometimes reminds me of the Strata-East classic Music Inc. The band members are in sync and you can tell that this record is a shared experience by musicians committed to the jazz art form.

The eclectic song choices include covers of the late pianist Mulgrew Miller’s “Capoeira Yá Carousel” as well as the Jule Styne standard “I Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry.” I love the group’s version of Ornette Coleman’s classic, “When Will The Blues Leave?” and of course Coltrane’s “Pursuance,” the third part of his timeless suite A Love Supreme. It does Coltrane good.

And Then it Rained by the Michael O’Neill Quartet is the second new jazz album that caught my ears. O’Neill is a San Francisco-based reed player, not to be confused with the guitar player of the same name. The quartet includes Michael Bluestein (piano), Dan Feiszli (bass and co-producer) and Jason Lewis (drums), with O’Neill on tenor, alto, soprano sax and clarinet. And Then it Rained features O’Neill’s original compositions. Some cuts like “Cloudscape” evoke the smooth and dreamy tenor sound of Stan Getz, or perhaps draw on the sound of Lester Young and Dexter Gordon as inspirations. I also love O’Neill’s soprano mastery on the waltz “Early Spring.”

But it was “Four Cornered Circle” that really resonated with me. The second half of the piece evokes Coltrane’s song “Spiritual,” from the epic 1961 Village Vanguard date. Pianist Bluestein channels McCoy Tyner’s beautiful comping. O’Neill tells me that, “Yes, the groove on ‘Four Cornered Circle’ is reminiscent of ‘Spiritual’ and also ‘Equinox.’ Those relaxed, soulful, swinging modal grooves speak a kind of universal truth. Trane was a musical prophet!”

For my part, I used to hear Coltrane’s “Spiritual” years ago on my morning commute to USC on KBCA 105.1 FM courtesy of Jai Rich, the morning host who called himself “Rosita’s Little Boy Jai, the Jammin’ Jay Rich.” The song is permanently etched into my memory and to hear somebody reprise it is wonderful and rare as well. Thank you Michael O’Neill & Co. for “Four Cornered Circle.”