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A new review for Sean Nowell “Firewerks”…

If you follow the basic premise that ECM records invented the piano trio then Posi-Tone is not terribly far behind when it comes to churning out releases from some of the brightest tenor stars of this generation. Ralph Bowen, Tom Tallitsch, Brandon Wright are but a few of the tenor giants of Posi -Tone and now we have Sean Nowell from this classic 2007 release Firewerks.
The musical question here is can a hard charging tenor player from Alabama find peace and artistic fulfillment in New York?
While Nowell can hold his own and then some on any bandstand, his compositional skills are equally as impressive as are the inventive arrangements on this release where Nowell is responsible for six of the eight compositions. Nowell is the real deal and this is meat and potatoes post bop. A groove you can sink your teeth into and always leaves you satisfied. “Resolution of Self” is a Nowell tune where pianist Art Hirahara seems to take the lyrical reins for a slightly zen like less is more approach until suddenly the ensemble begins a controlled harmonic free fall with dual horn lines and dynamics that are literally shifted on the fly but done so in such a cohesive fashion as to give the listener that this is merely improvisational chops taken to the next level as the quintet seems to relish working without a harmonic net. “Inner Universe” is a reharmonization of a tune by Anime composer Yoko Kanno. While an inner pulse is developed with the drum and bass reinvention of “Inner Universe” this tune is somehow brought together in a more contemporary style that revolutionary for 2007 is far more common place in 2012. Bjork has always been an artist that left me somewhat cold and musically unfulfilled yet every cover of her music set in a more straight ahead fashion seems to work with amazing ease of translation and the tune “Isobel” is no exception.
Firewerks is Sean Nowell’s first release on the Posi-Tone label and each subsequent release is in turn critically acclaimed as soon as review copies are made available. While Nowell’s command of rhythmic inventiveness is paired perfectly with his lyrical command, finding a tenor saxophonist that is also as skilled in the art of composition is a daunting task indeed. Firewerks is somewhat reminiscent of the classic small ensemble works coming out of Blue Note and Impulse back in the mid 1960’s but with a contemporary riff on the glory days of two labels ( Blue Note and Verve ) who have long since turned their back on the music that built their labels. Meanwhile both Nowell and Posi-Tone continue to fill their void with first call musicians and swing of the very highest artistic caliber. It would be unfair not to mention that Wayne Shorter has recently signed a deal with Blue Note however at this point in Shorter’s career I am not sure this is as exciting as it may sound. Posi-Tone is committed to bringing the listener the very finest in jazz for the long haul and not simply in an effort for a quick and easy payday.
Sean Nowell latest release Stockholm Swingin’ is living proof as to the investment made and the subsequent payoff in “staying the course.”
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A review of Sean Nowell’s Firewerks from

by Phil DiPetro

Sean Nowell is a virtual unknown who became known to me virtually through the socio-musical phenomenon known as MySpace. Nowell and his quintet have succeeded at melding, morphing and mixing the best of Blue Note-era small-group nirvana with the Headhunters’ pocket and vibe, evolving it to right now. This is not merely attributable to great writing and playing, but innovative arranging between the dual horn attack of tenorist Nowell and altoist Travis Sullivan, as padded and parried by Art Hirahara’s ultra-hip Rhodes. A hard -driving horn man from Alabama, Nowell’s now a New Yorker and member of Sullivan’s Bjorkestra, of which this entire unit is a scintillating subset.

A modern sinewy dual horn line kick-starts “Pale,” abetted by Joe Abbatantuono’s modern rock beats and bassist Danny Zanker’s slinky and bomb-like acoustic accents. This is supplanted by what I’ll call Nowell and Sullivan’s “home sound,” one that could be conjured by a front-line of saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and Sonny Criss until it starts to dance around each other in a motivic counter-melody so tightly written and arranged it sounds improvised.

Nowell’s first solo shows his big-tenor influences and up-to-the minute chops, punctuated by tasteful over- blowing running perfectly counter to the gutbucket jam, then growing Brecker-esquely dense. Sullivan doesn’t wait for the bar line on a perfectly executed handoff, while showing he’s an equally gifted soloist, adding Criss-like breathiness, classic alto rasp and finally, modern angularity to the mix. Hirahara seamlessly runs first into atmospheric territory, abetted by Abbatantuono’s stops and starts. The drummer’s dexterity on the bell of the ride and snare propels the Rhodes man to elasticize the funk into uncharted territory before bringing it home linearly and exiting on a new motif.

San Francisco transplant Hirahara is the session’s most “out-of-nowhere” revelation, so potent a soloist and colorist it seems at times as though it’s his date, as on the sultry “Resolution of Self,” similarly centered on unison, then separately supportive dual horn lines. Changing chords on each note of the latter portion of the horn line, the Rhodes urgently recontextualizes each second of their freefall. Horns drop out to leave a Rhodes trio. Hirahara counterbalances a restatement of the head, right against left, languidly linearizing into a solo growing more rhythmically precise, finally allowing slower lines to overrun each other with vintage sustain. The set’s catchiest number, using four bars of five and containing two notes each, it seems a rip-off of a classic horn line, but isn’t. The pre-ending motif is particularly effective as the two notes restate, but climb in a simple scalar fashion seducing you into a smoky sixties vibe.

Another highlight is “Inner Universe,” Nowell’s drum ‘n’ bass-driven rearrangement of a song by Anime composer Yoko Kanno that serves as a shreddingly satisfying modern tribute.

Tempting as it is to say Nowell’s concept, and the fresh-faced cast assembled here to translate it, portends great things, it’s untrue—they’ve already delivered one.

Track listing: Pale; Resolution of Self; ShahazaRaz; Folding Space; Isobel (Bjork); Maklahj; Inner Universe; Lament for Arnold.

Personnel: Sean Nowell: tenor sax; Travis Sullivan: alto sax; Art Hirahara: fender rhodes; Danny Zanker: bass; Joe Abbatantuono: drums.