The material on TuneTown’s sophomore effort was culled from the same sessions that produced the trio’s 2019 debut, There From Here. It would be wrong, however, to infer from that that the dozen tracks on Entering Utopia are leftovers, second-rate scraps of inferior quality to those on the debut. In fact, the new release proves to be as rewarding as its predecessor and satisfies especially for capturing its members performing with a very appealing looseness and with the kind of rapport associated with friends of long-standing coming together for the shared love of music-making.
Recorded over two days in November 2018 at Hamilton’s Grant Avenue Studio (where Daniel Lanois worked with Brian Eno), Entering Utopia features saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, acoustic bassist Artie Roth, and drummer Ernesto Cervini offering their take on the classic saxophone-bass-and-drums lineup. The three first played together as a trio in 2005 at The Rex Hotel & Jazz Bar in Toronto and formalized their union under the TuneTown name ten years later. That history facilitates confident yet relaxed interaction and provides the listener with an always-stimulating recording to appreciate.
It’s also a co-operative band, with each contributing tunes and putting his stamp on the music. That Entering Utopia will be a distinctive trio recording is evident the moment Cervini’s “Hello, Today” lopes into position with Jefferson dishing out a honking riff and the others adding bluesy voices to the mix. Originally titled “Ethan’s Lullaby,” “Layla Tov,” which the drummer wrote for his nephew on the day of his birth, is suitably heartfelt and also proves a superb showcase for Roth’s artful command and Jefferson’s expressive soprano. On a boppish note, Cervini pays tribute to his great fellow drummer, Bill Stewart, with the swinging “Billyish.”
With the trio adopting a spacious, almost rubato-like approach, Roth’s “Entering Utopia” reworks Johnny Green’s “Out of Nowhere” to haunting effect. Jefferson’s tenor assumes an almost ghostly quality in its upper register, while growing robust and full-throated elsewhere. As heady is Roth’s “Sycamore,” notable as much for its aggressive blowing as its deft use of 7/4 time. The bassist also contributes a memorable ballad, “Memories Remain,” which honours his late grandmother-in-law with a lovely tribute.
Two standards appear, one of which, Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl,” allows for a fascinating comparison between his take and TuneTown’s. In contrast to the legend’s smooth bop, the Canadian trio subjects the tune to an accelerating tempo that sees the performance move from measured intro to hard-charging abandon. The second, a dreamy cover of “Blue Gardenia” (which became well-known when Nat ‘King’ Cole sang it in the movie of the same name), concludes the release memorably by moving Cervini to the woodwind section, his bass clarinet a lovely partner to Jefferson’s tenor and Roth’s acoustic bass. Distinguishing themselves from the other pieces are improvs that find the trio operating in explorative mode. As free as they are, present within them are melodic kernels out of which formal compositions could conceivably grow.
Evident throughout the release is the co-operative spirit of the band, particularly in the way the spotlight’s shared. Whereas in another trio’s hands, the horn dominates, in this outfit each player is equally featured. Certainly another thing that makes the set enjoyable has to do with the personalities involved: though the group carries on the venerable saxophone trio tradition most famously associated with Sonny Rollins, TuneTown has a clear-cut identity, so much so that no one would mistake this trio for another.