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Saxophonics 

2003 is officially the year of the saxophone

Just on the Saturday side of midnight on the corner of 7th Avenue and 57th Street, I spied saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, the round-faced son of the legendary John Coltrane, excitedly rapping to a friend. A short glance a dozen paces to the east revealed another saxophonist, Lee Konitz, one of the last survivors of Miles Davis' famous Birth of the Cool recordings of, oh, roughly 54 years ago. Konitz, senior citizen of hip, and Coltrane, a handsome man with boundless musical potential, shared in the collective sidewalk euphoria following the June 28 Carnegie Hall concert by their colleague, fellow saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

For Shorter, a big-eyed, diminutive man with a mischievous smile, 2003 has been a fantastic year. Among jazz cognoscenti, it will be remembered as a sublime moment, a time when Weird Wayne finally climbed out of the shadows and into the sunshine.

Since 1959, Shorter has earned a solid rep as one of jazz's quintessential second bananas, the Watson to a succession of better-known Sherlocks. His resume goes something like this: musical director for drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, tenor in trumpeter Miles Davis' quintet, foil to keyboardist Joe Zawinul, the boss of the premier jazz-rock band, Weather Report.

Then, following a hit-and-miss solo career since the bust up of Weather Report, Shorter's wife Anna Maria was killed aboard TWA Flight 800 in 1996.

While many expected the reluctant saxophonist to disappear into a black hole of inactivity, Shorter instead responded to personal tragedy by grabbing pen and manuscript paper. As a composer of great skill and subtlety, he began to write again. He remarried. Then he hit the road, first with old pal Herbie Hancock for a series of celebrated duets, and later with a fresh quartet of hungry, younger musicians who respected Shorter, but did not pander to him. Co-starring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, this highly interactive combo is regarded by some as the finest working band in jazz.

At least the editors of one magazine agree. With darting eyes masked by space-age shades (natch), Shorter poses on the cover of the August issue of Down Beat, the jazz journal of record. Inside, a polling of jazz critics reveals that Shorter just pulled a coup worthy of Norah Jones at the Grammys. According to DB, he's the Artist of the Year, Bandleader of the Year, Soprano Saxophonist, Composer and the newest inductee into the Hall of Fame.

A cosmic presence who prefers to let music speak for itself, Shorter, however, could care less about such accolades; he simply plays on.

Titled, ahem, "Wayne Shorter: Life & Music," the Carnegie Hall concert was the culminating event of the JVC Jazz Fest in New York City. Dressed in a natty, loose-fitting housecoat, Shorter alternated between gruff tenor and siren soprano, carrying on a dense conversation with the cats in his quartet. He high-fived special guests like pianist Hancock and tap dancer Savion Glover. He acknowledged the sonic majesty in the pastel arrangements of Robert Sadin, who flamboyantly conducted the Festival Chamber Orchestra. And, as is often his wont, Shorter played less--and listened more.

On the street after the show, standing within a stone's throw of young Trane and senior Konitz, I guess the rush of this remarkable evening got to me. It was then I realized that it had been an unforgettable year not only for Shorter, but the fraternity of saxophone in general.

Safely back home a week later, sonic snippets of sax are chasing me around the crib. My daughter's digging Missy Elliott's hit "Gossip Folks," a montage of cacophonous voices launched by a honking six-note loop of--yeah, baby--saxophone. That was my cue to make a phone call.

I got on the horn to several musicians to seek confirmation of my theory that, indeed, '03 really is the year of the saxophone. Tenor Javon Jackson, whose new album springs from the finger-poppin' juxtaposition of sax and Hammond B-3 organ, wasn't sure. "Oh, I'm certain there's a lot of great music being recorded," he admitted, "but I just haven't heard a lot of it. I'm too busy getting my own thing together."

Triangle-based Mahlon Hoard remains busy as well, gigging at Babette's and other area venues in various bands, including the trio 7ish. Hoard agreed that something saxophonic was in the air. "I think overall level of musicianship has been rising," the tenor-soprano saxophonist mused. "There are some real thinkers out there. These days, it's not uncommon to go to any town and find some really fine saxophonists. I'm hearing more individualism, too, which is what I'm striving for in my own sax-playing."

So here's the proof: What follows is a nifty directory of new saxophone recordings that run the stylistic gamut-from chattering free-form blasts to tamer sounds that fit logically within the jazz continuum. Depending upon the disc, there's be-bop, neo-bop or no bop at all. Somewhere on this list, there's a reed ready to massage your ear and, perhaps, break your heart.

Jane Ira Bloom--Chasing Paint (Arabesque). Subtitled "Music in Motion," Paint draws inspiration from the action art of Jackson Pollock. Possessing clarion tone, Bloom's soprano wiggles comfortably in a thick carpet of support rolled out by her band. Pianist Fred Hersch stands out, backing Bloom with deeply sympathetic chords and tinkling decorations.

Ravi Coltrane--Mad 6 (88s/Columbia). The like-father-like-son tag just doesn't stick to 38-year-old Ravi. His tone on soprano and tenor eschews daddy's treacherous shards in favor of curved contours. Meanwhile, schizo-drummer Steve Hass strokes like the devil, flipping between chattering old-school jazz and loose-limbed funk worthy of a hip-hop anthem.

Dave Ellis--State of Mind (Milestone). If you grooved on guitarist Charlie Hunter's jam-band of the mid-'90s, you'll recognize Ellis. And maybe you won't. For the moment, this tuff tenor has traded in the dusty Ram van for a vintage Fleetwood. Ellis' repertoire is currently retro-fitted with tasty standards, from Charlie Parker's "Barbados" to Horace Silver's "Peace."

Kenny Garrett--Standard of Language (Warner Bros.). A visceral disc for thrill-seekers who live life fast--and faster! Miles' last great saxophonist, alto Garrett toots over difficult harmonic changes swifter than any gunslinger since the ol' Yardbird himself, the aforementioned Sheriff Parker. No ballads, really; just balls-to-the-wall pyrotechnics.

Javon Jackson--Easy Does It (Palmetto). Surrounded by soul stirrers like Hammond wiz Lonnie Smith and Durham diva Eve Cornelious, tenor Jackson recalls the inter-city jazz circuit of the '50s, when organ trios ruled the roost. Got a friend who snuggles with Smooth Jazz, but wants to inch a bit closer to something real? This is the ticket.

Oliver Lake Big Band--Cloth (Passin' Thru). Hard to believe, but Maestro Lake, a sonic freebird since the '70s, is a bona fide Golden Ager. Peeping out from graying dreads, this pungent alto remains delightfully--and dangerously--on the edge. The brass-laden 16-piece ensemble stomps around with the authority of a joyous elephant. While the cascading solos dip and blare, the air-tight ensemble-playing will surprise some and engage all listeners with ears wide open.

Marsalis Family--A Jazz Celebration (Marsalis Music/Rounder). What does a Marsalis clan mid-summer picnic sound like? Like this, a friendly blowing session starring bro's Wynton (trumpet), Delfayo ('bone), Jason (drums) and Branford (saxes). Of course, Papa Ellis fingers harmonically sophisticated piano--and tries to keep the peace during "Cain and Abel," a real life soap opera pitting Wyn vs. Bran.

Ted Nash--Still Evolved (Palmetto). Fans of Wynton M's golden horn will celebrate his guest-spot on 4 cuts, but it's the engaging repertoire, all penned by Nash, that grabbed my attention. The hard swingers echo vintage Blue Note days from the '60s, while the ballads mix teardrops with modern sounding ambiguity.

Greg Osby--St. Louis Shoes (Blue Note). That rare record which looks into the future and past simultaneously--and with equal clarity. A brainiac with heaps of soul, Osby revisits Duke Ellington and his own roots by the Big River. The pairing with trumpeter Nicholas Payton, a staunchly conservative stylist, proves that opposites really do attract.

Wayne Shorter--Alegria (Verve). The basis for the Carnegie Hall party, Shorter's new disc features the Quartet, plus orchestral works that reflect the influence of Miles Davis' classic abstractions with arranger Gil Evans. Alegria's subtle charm may not be apparent at first, so give it time. Last year's award-winning Footprints Live! (Verve) hits harder and with more immediacy, while newcomers to Wayne's world will enjoy The Classic Blue Note Recordings, which imaginatively chronicles his magic pre-1970.

Jim Snidero--Strings (Milestone). An evocative concerto for shimmering alto made buoyant by a flexible, chamber-sized orchestra. The leader's ambitious arrangements blend angular Americana (a la Aaron Copland) with asides of slight dissonance and--on occasion--a bit of old-fashioned romance. Wonder how Snidero taught the strings to swing so damn hard?

Stryker-Slagle Band--Stryker-Slagle Band (Khaeon). This rambunctious quartet has been gigging for seven years--and it sounds like it. Guitarist Dave Stryker and saxophonist Steve Slagle, veterans of the dog-eat-dog New York scene, write accessible tunes brimming with wit and play 'em exuberantly. Forte: da blues.

Vandermark 5--Airports for Light (Atavistic). A free spirit who blows with chutzpah, multi-reed hero Ken Vandermark fronts many bands. This is my favorite, though, an ersatz 'chamber' quintet that improvises purposefully within the framework of KV's often striking compositions. Vandermark's significant local following no doubt admires the combo's trademark restraint and flair for dynamics. Even when the music whispers, V5 packs the wallop of a thunderclap. EndBlock

  • 2003 is officially the year of the saxophone

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