July 3rd, 2021
Entering Utopia (Three Pines Records)
As much as I love jazz piano (it’s a consuming pursuit of mine during my off hours), I’m a big fan of jazz with no piano, or for that matter, no chordal instruments.
There’s something about the clarity and linear verve of music featuring one or two horn players, ably supported by bass and drums, minus the detractions of a pianist playing too many chords with too many notes.
Recently I’ve been digging three horn-forward albums starring almost entirely Canadian casts.
Drummer Cervini also appears on a recently released all-Canadian saxophone trio album Entering Utopia by the collective called TuneTown.
Toronto-based TuneTown includes saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and bassist Artie Roth. Given the back-to-back releases of The Brighter Side and Entering Utopia, it’s tempting to call Jefferson Canada’s Joel Frahm, although for every laudable similarity there’s probably a notable difference between the two exceptional hornmen.
Compared to the Frahm trio’s output, the range of things that TuneTown does is a little wider. Where bright-tempoed swinging dominates The Brighter Side, Entering Utopia is more eclectic. The average tempo is slower and tracks are bound to be a little more conscious of vibe and atmosphere. That’s especially true of four shorter tracks that are credited to all three band members and have the exploratory minimalism of collective improvisations. Also, some sonic fillips — the bit of glockenspiel and recording of giggling children that open Cervini’s tender, airy tune Layla Tov or Cervini’s switch to clarinet on the languid album-closing ballad Blue Gardenia — broaden the band’s palette.
Which is not to say that Entering Utopia is lacking in straight-ahead jazz, or at least jazz that’s somewhat straighter. Cervini’s album-opening composition Hello, Today is a slow, rugged blues that initially disguises its blues form, while its improvising features traded choruses and four-bar phrases from each trio member. The drummer’s Billyish is a swaggering rhythm changes tune with the wrinkle of an excised bar here and there. An arrangement of the blues Cheryl indulges in some metric modulation that its composer, Charlie Parker, would never have dreamed of.
Roth contributes three tunes, including the plaintive and then beseeching title track. Sycamore is based on Poinciana, the Nat Simon tune that pianist Ahmad Jamal (and his drummer Vernell Fournier) transformed into a jazz staple with a beat all its own. Memories Remain is the album’s poignant ballad.
While Jefferson may not have written music for the album, he is nonetheless its prime melodic voice. A superb postbop saxophonist who can handle any set of complex chord changes thrown at him, Jefferson when unfettered by a pianist or guitarist can head a little to the left and play more gesturally. Hearing him on Entering Utopia, and especially on its freer material, I caught myself thinking fleetingly of Charles Lloyd and even Dewey Redman.