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Nashville Scene Dig the New Breed

Young jazz has a lot to offer

By Ron Wynn

JULY 20, 1998:  Of late, jazz's twentysomethings have been under attack, accused of everything from fawning ancestor-worship to "murdering" the music. In the '80s, jazz critics heralded major labels for signing a host of youthful players. But these days, observers are more skeptical about labels such as Atlantic, Warner Bros., Verve, RCA, MCA, and Columbia offering contracts to the likes of saxophonists James Carter, Mark Turner, and Ravi Coltrane; trumpeter Nicholas Payton; pianists Geoff Keezer and Eric Reed; and drummer Leon Parker.

Ironically, the above musicians have shown far more ingenuity and abandon than their predecessors. Judging by most of their current releases, they've eschewed the '80s players' slavish devotion to '50s hard bop, and they're more inclined to include original material or to highlight the works of obscure or neglected jazz influences. Carter and his compatriots also display a stylistic maturity and individualism that some critics have missed in their rush to chide an entire generation for not unearthing another Charlie Parker or John Coltrane.

James Carter's second Atlantic release, In Carterian Fashion, revisits a staple of the early '60s, the organ combo. Arguably this decade's finest multi-instrumentalist, Carter plays bass clarinet and baritone, alto, and tenor sax with ferocity and distinction. His swaggering tenor licks and robust tone on "Don's Idea" and "Lockjaw's Lament" pay tribute to Don Byas and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis without diminishing Carter's own voice, while his range on the bass clarinet and the soprano saxophone is equally amazing. Carter sometimes plays so many notes with such speed that he zips by his rhythm section.

Still, organists Cyrus Chestnut and Henry Butler usually keep pace--particularly Butler, a bluesy, resourceful improviser whose swelling chords and joyful thrusts add spice to "Down to the River" and "Odyssey." Carter's journeys into free music are ably accompanied by drummer Tani Tabbal, while percussionists Leonard King and Alvester Garrett smoothly anchor the more traditional rhythmic fare.

On his self-titled debut for Warner Bros., Mark Turner concentrates solely on tenor sax. But like Carter, he mixes his genres, moving from vigorous straight-ahead blowing on "Mr. Brown" to New Orleans-laced blues on "26-2," from introspective unison exchanges with Joshua Redman on Ornette Coleman's "Kathleen Gray" to lush, passionate statements on "Autumn in New York." Redman, now a familiar name on the jazz trail, provides stimulation and intensity on three cuts, prodding Turner to amplify his volume and vary his solos. Pianist Edward Simon, bassist Christopher Thomas, and drummer Brian Blade don't simply sit back and accompany the leaders. Constantly adjusting, prodding, and changing tempos, they help prevent Turner from coasting or losing steam.

Ravi Coltrane initially resisted pursuing a musical career, partly to avoid the inevitable comparisons with his legendary father. Eventually, though, he changed his mind. He spent four years studying music at Cal Arts, then served apprenticeships in various Steve Coleman ensembles and in Elvin Jones' Jazz Machine. As a result, his debut as a leader, Moving Pictures (RCA), reflects a poise, thoughtfulness, and expressiveness that can only be honed through nightly tests on the bandstand or in the studio.

Although the familial links are evident, notably in his soprano work, Ravi Coltrane's tenor sound isn't as insistent nor as striking as his father's. (Whose would be?) But he demonstrates on his inspired cover of Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" and his smooth remake of Wayne Shorter's "When You Dream" that he can deliver solid, often captivating statements. Mentor Coleman serves as producer, joining Coltrane on "Inner Urge" and "Outerlude-Still Thursday."

The disc's finest selections pair the saxophonist with the rhythmic trio Ancient Vibrations. Junior Gabu Wedderburn on lead djembe, Jeremiah McFarlane on djembe, and Clyde Wedderburn on djoun djoun add slashing African accents on "Interlude-Thursday," "Search for Peace," and "Outerlude-Still Thursday," cresting underneath Coltrane's fiery leads. On these songs, there's no doubt that the son has made his own mark, independent of the father.

Nicholas Payton is merely the latest in an exemplary line of New Orleans trumpeters who've followed Wynton Marsalis out of the Crescent City and into the limelight. But unlike Terence Blanchard and Ryan Kisor, Payton records for Verve rather than for Columbia. His third release on the label, Payton's Place, matches the technical brillance and flair he exhibited on last year's stunning session with now deceased legend Doc Cheatham.

The date's two finest songs are the bright quintet piece "Zigaboogaloo," which recalls Lee Morgan's '60s Blue Note smash "The Sidewinder," and the tour de force "The Three Trumpeters," which matches Payton with Marsalis and Roy Hargrove. On "Zigaboogaloo," Payton's crisp middle-register solo gets sharp support from tenor saxophonist Tim Warefield. And on "The Three Trumpeters," each of the featured players displays a speciality: Marsalis offers flashy half-valve smears, Payton turns in rippling high-octane phrases, and Hargrove responds with delightful answering lines. Though it's essentially a blowing number, the three musicians make impressive personal statements without letting their exchanges degenerate into chaos.

Pianists Geoff Keezer and Eric Reed have both amassed impressive credentials as sidemen. At the age of 17, the former was the last person to fill the piano chair in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers; he then went on to record for independent labels DIW and Sunnyside, as well as for Blue Note. Reed replaced Marcus Roberts in Wynton Marsalis' band and has lately been playing in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Both men's current releases are a bit erratic, but each pianist frequently displays dazzling technical skills.

Keezer's Turn Up the Quiet (Columbia) clicks when the pianist is joined by such stalwarts as vocalist Diana Krall and the busy Joshua Redman. His forte is the octave-jumping phrase, which particularly enlivens "Lose My Breath," "Love Dance," and the Afro-Latin "Bilbo No Aozora." Krall's wondrous voice breathes life into the chestnut "The Nearness of You," and Redman soars over Keezer's flashy accompaniment on "Stompin' at the Savoy." But no matter how competently Keezer or bassist Christian McBride play, they can't enliven "Lush Life," nor can they turn "Rose" or "Precious One" into anything but routine, if well-executed, material.

Likewise, many of the compositions on Reed's Pure Imagination (MCA) are shopworn. Certainly, his intervallic leaps, harmonic brilliance, and frequently majestic phrasing are impeccable and superb--as are Reginald Veal's booming bass and Gregory Hutchinson's tasteful drumming. But no one currently living can find a way to freshen up "You'll Never Walk Alone," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," or "Send in the Clowns." Reed and company's musical credentials are unquestioned--maybe in the future they'll use their skills on more challenging and less familiar numbers.

Drummer/percussionist Leon Parker doesn't encounter this problem on his Columbia debut, Awakening. The album's nine selections are dominated by Parker's bombastic licks and rhythmic dialogues with fellow percussionists Natalie Cushman and Adam Cruz. Tenor saxophonist Sam Newsome, alto saxophonist Steve Wilson, and flutist Lisa Parker have to establish themselves on selections with sizzling, colliding textures. "Axe Bahia," "Mother Earth," "Cruz," and the title cut briskly move through Afro-Latin, Afro-Cuban, African, and Caribbean nuances, beats, and melodies. Awakening may be a million miles away from hard bop, but it's just as arresting, and it represents a textbook example of jazz that neatly mixes past and present trends while beckoning to the future.

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