Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Stephen Riley - Hold ‘Em Joe (Steeplechase, 2018)

Stephen Riley is a mainstream jazz tenor saxophonist, who nods in the direction of the legendary Sonny Rollins by recording in an open ended format with only Jay Anderson on bass and Adam Nussbaum on drums. They play some of the music Rollins recorded in this configuration, along with a selection of American songbook and jazz standards, alternating between uptempo tracks and ballad performances. Riley has a confident and even tone to his saxophone, light and nimble and able to summon a range of emotional energies, beginning with "I Never Knew" which has a fast and breathy takeoff, soon joined by supple bass and crisp cymbal play. The music moves at a fast pace, but an accessible one, as the rhythm team creates a tight pocket, and Riley's improvisation is closely linked to the original theme of the song, with some excellent drumming sewn in throughout the performance, trading ideas with the saxophonist. The title track "Hold Em Joe" is a bright and happy sounding tune, with elastic bass and swinging cymbals supporting the well articulated saxophone playing, moving from the melody to a fleet extrapolation. A thoughtful bass solo, framed by cymbals and softly played saxophone holds down the middle, making way for a percussion feature that extends the rhythmic range of the music, before the group comes back together for a strong collaborative finishing statement. "Three Little Words" is fast and exciting track, with the band playing with a muscular grace that belies the lower volume. Bass and drums bubble and roil as the saxophone soars just overhead making for a solid collaborative improvisation that really cooks, but allowing tempo stop at the drop of a hat to make on the fly adjustments to the music and its constituent parts, keeping the dynamic range high and using it to stoke the engine of the overall tension of the performance. "Almost Like Being In Love" has melodic mild toned saxophone, joined by dancing cymbals, with flexible and adaptable bass playing allows the music to conform to any shape the musicians desire, in this case gently swinging medium tempo. The push the tempo a little higher and the music responds nicely, the improvisation developing in a way that is pleasing and attractive. A tune most clearly associated with Rollins, "I'm An Old Cowhand," has a more spacious feeling allowing the light tone of the leader to investigate the material around grounded bass and soft cymbal play. There is a bass feature in the middle, framed by percussion reminiscent of Shelley Manne's original playing, which gives them the energy to follow through to the end. Finally, "The Song is You" is a vivid and bold performance, with well defined bass and drums providing a firm foundation for Riley's light and agile saxophone to take a lengthy and high flying solo, also incorporating a drum solo and trading of phrases which shows readily imaginative interplay between the saxophonist and the drummer. This was a very solid modern mainstream jazz album, which makes clear its reverence for the past, while placing itself firmly into the jazz scene of today. Hold 'Em Joe - amazon.com

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