During the last two decades, jazz trumpeter Al Strong has graduated from one of N.C. Central University's big-band all-stars into, in various stages, a session musician, an educator, a jazz-scene curator and, at last, a bona fide recording artist. He funnels all those experiences—plus the friends he made along the way—into his debut, LoveStrong Vol. 1. Though it's a clean, cool and virtuosic workshop of a record, Strong mostly sidesteps rigid jazz musicality for raw emotion during these 10 wide-ranging tracks. For Triangle jazz, the result is a welcome jolt of energy.
On "Blue Monk," a gaggle of spirited speakeasy hounds, whom Strong affectionately dubs "Party Boys," cheer Strong toward the threshold of Afrobeat ecstasy. "Here we go, horns," he announces back, parading his horn section through the Thelonious Monk standard. Together, they unite New Orleans second lines and Nigerian funk licks, closing an international jazz gap.
LoveStrong's chief prerogative seems to be proving that Strong is savvy both as an erudite student of the form's history and an active composer for its future. Strong offers evidence for the latter through six originals penned with saxophonist Bluford Thompson Jr. and organist Chuckey Robinson. "Liquid" builds on an R&B essence and trails off beyond the smooth jazz wasteland, Strong and Thompson ultimately trading lush horn leads that melt into each other. "Fond of You" finds Strong wobbling with his horn, boiling in concentration, while he blows with the slow relief of deliverance during "Was." These numbers crest alongside the four covers.
Strong primps the traditionally youthful "Itsy Bitsy Spider" with sophisticated harmonies, and guitarist JC Martin's sonority during "Ci's Blues" spotlights the veteran bandleader's ability to arrange a piece that seems suitable for a variety of contexts—cabarets, concert halls, close quarters. His past powers his current versatility.
Sure, the playing of Strong and his varied ensembles here may feel a touch safe, not risky or defiant. He realigns "My Favorite Things," for instance, but doesn't necessarily re-imagine it, and Strong has omitted some of his more edgy fare for his debut. But on LoveStrong, he taps a deep pool of talented peers that helps animate and update his deepest jazz convictions. LoveStrong is public testimony to Strong's powerful private leadership.