Debut from alto saxophonist Shanker and a band of Art Hirahara or Mike Eckroth on piano, Lage Lund on guitar, Yoshi Waki on bass and Brian Fischler on drums.
Shanker writes all the tunes with the exception of the closer, Lenny Bernstein’s Somewhere, and he has a nice full and fruity sound on alto. Born in California, and a student of the Manhattan Schoo, he was snapped up by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra and has since played in loads of clubs and on loads of sessions, won a composition award and written soundtrack music
Which all goes into making this a most accomplished debut. Listen to him – and the band as a whole – at a rolling boil on Fifth And Berry, and developing some forceful lyricism onRhapsody.
Really good recording sound, too, with the subtlety of Shanker’s timbre particularly lovely on Sarah.
Another alto player, another PosiTone recording, but a different sound and style.
Cornelius is from texas and met drummer Kendrick Scott via the All State Jazz Band. He studied at Berklee, moved to New York and was in the same Manhattan School class as trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Gerald Clayton (who, along with Scott, appears on this disc).
Cornelius has a fine way of composing which determines the improvisation that should go with it. The result is that satisfying state where written parts and solos are blurred in the listener’s ears.
Try Brother Gabriel for size. It borrows some harmonic material from Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes The Flood (hence the title) and is a little beauty of reflection and quiet emotional intensity. Cornelius has a thinner tone than Shanker but is equally eloquent.
Good unclassifiable modern jazz.
Steppin’ Up is a powerhouse set of aggressive jazz from New York-based alto saxophonist Kenny Shanker. A commanding soloist who draws from a wide range of influence, Shanker moves easily from contemporary, modal-based ideas to full-throttle, energized swing on this debut release, recorded in 2009. His challenging compositions maintain a listener friendly appeal with lyrical themes and tight, straightforward grooves.
The driving momentum of “Fifth and Berry,” the lightness of “Sarah” and the conviction applied to Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” bring out an improvisational style in the California native that is fast thinking and quick witted. Pianists Art Hirahara and Mike Eckroth contribute solid performances. Guitarist Lage Lund’s linear approach is stunning, especially on “Fifth and Berry” and “E. J.” Brian Fishler is a workhorse of a drummer, pushing hard and keeping his colleagues on edge.
Over at the office of Posi-Tone, the Los Angeles-based jazz label, 2011 is jokingly referred to as the “year of the altos.” Below are reviews of three discs that have helped define the year for the label. Not surprisingly, their similarities are not limited to the horn played by the leaders involved. As per the Posi-tone mandate, the CDs brim with modern mainstream jazz zeitgeist built on a post-bop foundation. The discs also adhere to some of Posi-Tone producer Marc Free’s recommendations, offering a bounty of tunes under six minutes — all the better to be played on the radio — as well as a couple of covers of standards meant to open a window on the leader’s inspirations and influences.
However, of the three discs below, I have a clear favourite, and I’ll start by discussing it.
Maybe Steps (Posi-Tone)
This disc clearly strikes me as the most accomplished disc of Posi-Tone’s batch. OnMaybe Steps, alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius demonstrates striking poise, assurance and eloquence in his playing, and his compositions are well-crafted lyrical statements, not simply content to be blowing vehicles.
The disc, the saxophonist’s third under his own name, also rises to the top because Cornelius has called upon some of the jazz world’s most exceptional young players for the recording. Pianist Gerald Clayton (who sounds impeccable throughout), guitarist Miles Okazaki, bassist Peter Slavov (heard in Ottawa in 2010 playing with Joe Lovano’s UsFive group), and drummer Kendrick Scott really know how to make the music breathe and come alive as they provide supple, responsive, nuanced accompaniment. Even in the confines of a five-minute tune, Cornelius, Clayton and Okazaki can build compelling solo statements that grow and flourish. And of course, Cornelius and his bandmates can go big when the music calls for obvious shows of strength.
The discs get right down to business with the rollicking Christmas Gift, which has a nice modern edge to it as it alternates stretches of simmering and boiling. The track gives a clear indication of the disc’s appealing mix of urbane sophistication and power. Shiver Song, heard in the excerpt below is a samba-style song with plenty of hustle and forward motion. Short as it is, the clip also gives you a sense of the tartness and focus of Cornelius’ playing.
The disc hits its cool notes well too. Take for example, the loping title track that re-affirms the timeless pleasure of a two-feel groove gearing up to 4/4 swinging, the pretty Brother Gabriel (which echoes Peter Gabriel’s Here Comes The Flood), Into the Stars, and the jaunty, lilting 5/4 tune A Day Like Any Other. After a fine solo introduction by Clayton, Into the Stars is a straight-eighths tune, both tender and tense, that showcases Okazaki’s flowing melodies.
Bella’s Dreaming, inspired by Cornelius’ young daughter, is a short but meaningful exercise in crescendo. With the bolero-style Le Rendez-vous Final, the disc finds a strong, plaintive conclusion.
Posi-tone producer Marc Free likes a few standard or two thrown in on his CD, and Cornelius has obliged with some good ones. My Ship, a duet with pianist Asssen Doykin, is both personal and true to the song — not an easy balance to strike for younger jazz players. Conception is a fast romp that, like the title track, underscores the continued relevance of swinging.
For the next few days, Maybe Steps is streaming here, courtesy of Montreal’s Nextbopping jazz advocates. See if you like it as much as I do.
New Directions (Posi-Tone)
This quartet disc is the first small-ensemble outing in more than 10 years from alto saxophonist Sullivan, who is better known as the leader of his Bjork-covering big band, Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra. Front and centre on this CD of eight originals and two covers, Sullivan seems to take at least a few cues from Kenny Garrett in terms of his at times astringent sound and the kind of writing and modal soloing that he’s going for.
Sullivan’s joined by pianist Mike Eckroth (who’s been doing some big league playing with John Scofield), bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Brian Fishler for a varied program than generally leans toward the straight-eighths, groovy side of things (the funky, riffy 7/4 tune Hidden Agenda, the 5/4 piece Magic Monday, the slinky tuneGeorgie, which opens up considerably on the version below).
Tune-wise, the best of this batch is Jamia’s Dance, the CD’s well-chosen opener, which is poppy but substantial.
On the less funky side of the ledger, Tuneology is a fast minor-key swinger, Leap of Faith is a nice 3/4 tune, and Autumn in NH makes a good bit of music out of very little — after a pretty piano intro by Eckroth and a short theme, free, soundscape-oriented playing ensues.
The standard Spring Is Here receives a very straight reading. It has the right vibe to it, but Sullivan’s playing is more stiff and brusque than I would like — he sounds considerably more free and expansive during his cadenza than when he’s playing the tune proper.
With his cover of Everybody Wants to Rule the World, Sullivan lets loose his inner ’80s child. He sets the Tears for Fears tune to a jazzier, waltzing groove, and reharmonizes it a bit. It’s OK, but this ’80s child likes it best when Fishler brings back the tune’s original groove during the tune’s coda.
Sullivan’s disc is a solid one, with nicely proportioned post-bop performances and enough good writing and accomplished playing to make it distinctive.
Steppin’ Up (Posi-Tone)
On his hard-hitting debut CD, alto saxophonist Kenny Shanker shows off a big, ripe sound that brings Kenny Garrett and Jan Garbarek to my mind at times. That sound is consistently put into service during persuasive, committed solos — Shanker has a lot of bop under his fingers (and some Garrett-style lines too) and has no problems revving up to top gear when he improvises.
As a composer, Shanker creates direct, uncomplicated meat-and-potatoes fare — all the better for him to unleash strong stuff when he solos. A good chunk of Steppin’ Upis pop- and gospel-influenced (the down-home opener Winter Rain, Home Sweet Home, the pretty, quarter-notey ballad Sarah). Quirk is a groovy, Garrett-style tune. The rocking Rhapsody strives to be grand and, well, rhapsodic — I don’t find it says that much to me, however.
On the swinging side of things, Fifth & Berry is a brisk, mostly minor blues, with guitarist Lage Lund contributing the first of three guest appearances. The guitarist also enlivens E.J., a charging tune, which features a swaggering half-time solo by pianist Art Hirahara before the music becomes more crowded. Lund returns onSaints, another multi-groove tune, and his playing on that track might be one of the disc’s highlights — the beginning of the solo feels more patient than much of Steppin’ Up. Prowl is a jazz waltz that could have been better shaped, although Hirahara delivers a strong solo.
The disc closes with a rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere. Shanker sings the melody directly through his horn, and pianist Mike Eckroth expresses himself well.
Steppin’ Up clearly conveys the heat and power of Shanker’s music. Indeed, it feels to me like the recording, mixing and mastering meant to stress the punchiness of the proceedings — at the expense, I think, of more varied, nuanced expression. For comparison’s sake, drummer Bryan Fishler comes off as more rigid and brash than he does on Sullivan’s disc. Probably that’s more a function of the recording, rather than what Fishler played.
Alto Saxophonist Kenny Shanker is proof that an artist’s direction isn’t always reflected in their tonal personality. Shanker possesses a sleek-and-sweet tone that has served him well on dates with big name ghost band, like theTommy Dorsey Orchestra and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, as well as smooth-leaning pianist David Benoit, but his own music operates outside of the “contemporary jazz” orbit.
Shanker occasionally hints at the simpler side of jazz, with an easily appealing, less-is-more melody (“Home Sweet Home”) or a heart-wrenching ballad (“Sarah”) that showcases his tender side, but he also puts his silky saxophone to good use in more striking fashion. He throws caution to the wind on the urgent “Fifth And Berry,” which showcases a bevy of bravura solos from various band members, turns up the heat during his solo on “Quirk,” and brings a sense of elation to “E.J.”
While Shanker didn’t invite any horn players to join him here, guitarist Lage Lund occasionally serves as his front line partner. Both men complement each other when working in tandem, but Lund’s greater contributions come with his solos. He pushes at the boundaries of Shanker’s songs in pleasurable ways and brings a thoroughly modern slant to this music. Pianist and label mate Art Hirahara also shares Lund’s sense of adventure when soloing, and his comping pushes Shanker in some unexpected directions during the saxophonist’s solo flights.
While Hirahara mans the keys for the majority of this music, Mike Eckroth takes over on three numbers, and his playing is in-line with Shanker in every way. His soloing on Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” is a sparkling example of measured contemplation and musicality, and completely captures the emotional essence of “Sarah.”
It took Shanker eight post-college years to step out and record this debut, and the album aged on the shelves for another two-plus years, but it was worth the wait. Steppin’ Up signals the arrival of another unique and promising saxophone personality in the ever-impressive Posi-Tone stable.
Track Listing: Winter Rain; Fifth And Berry; Rhapsody; Quirk; E.J.; Sarah; Prowl; Saints; Home Sweet Home; Somewhere.
Personnel: Kenny Shanker: alto saxophone; Lage Lund: guitar; Art Hirahara: piano; Yoshi Waki: bass; Mike Eckroth: piano (4, 6, 10); Brian Fishler: drums.
Alto saxophonist and relative newcomer Kenny Shanker has recently released his inaugural CD “Steppin’ Up” on Posi-Tone Records.
In addition to Shanker on alto saxophone, this wonderful jazz recording features Lage Lund, guitar; Brian Fishler, drums; Yoshi Waki, bass and both Art Hirahara and Mike Eckroth on piano.
Although I could only offer a partial listening as of this writing, it was immediately clear that Kenny Shanker is another talented, young saxophonist to be featured on Posi-Tone Records. His sound is clear, lines are melodic and he has surrounded himself with a cast of outstanding musicians.
The recording is busting at the seams with no less than 10 compelling tracks. Somewhere around 2:00 into Fifth and Berry and then again during Quirk I became a fan of Kenny Shanker’s playing. His sound shimmers with clarity, bright yet full of life. On Prowl, he maintains his clearness of tone, yet seems a bit darker in tone – if only a bit.
Home Sweet Home is another winner on “Steppin’ Up” by Kenny Shanker. Fans of the jazz group “The Yellowjackets” will find a familiar sound and feel to this lovely tune.
The final cut Somewhere demonstrates Shanker’s ability to translate a melody through his horn. I suspect Shanker is a hell of a lead alto player as well.
You can find out more about “Steppin’ Up,” Kenny Shanker and other innovative recordings at www.posi-tone.com
Alto saxophonist Kenny Shanker has been involved with jazz since his early teens – he even toured Japan twice with the Monterey Jazz Festival High School All-Star Big Band. He makes his Posi-Tone Records debut with “Steppin’ Up” and, like the Patrick Cornelius release I reviewed a few weeks back (read here), Shanker builds the majority of his songs off of strong melodic lines. He gets great support from the sparkling rhythm section of bassist Yoshi Waki and drummer Brian Fishler. Add to them the hard-edged piano of Art Hirahara plus energetic contributions from guitarist Lage Lund and the listener is rewarded time and again. Listen to the short but lovely “Rhapsody” or the rollicking “E,J.“, 2 very different pieces yet both have excellent melodies – the latter piece is enlivened by the interplay of Fishler with the soloists. Pianist Mike Eckroth replaces Hirahara on 3 cuts, including the hearty “Quirk“, the sweet ballad “Sarah”, and the lovely take on Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” that closes the CD (and is the only non-original in the program.)
Through it all, Shanker’s alto saxophone playing is impressive for the way he builds his solos, his warm tone and lively engagement with the band. Lund matches warm tone as well as creating solos off the energy of his band mates. Hirahara continues to impress as a sideman and soloist; in the former role, he does not just lay back but engages the soloist with fine chords and counterpoint while his own solos have an energy that reflects the influence of Bud Powell (my opinion) without being derivative of anyone in particular.
Thanks to the fact that my new job has me in the car 5 days a week, I have been listening to most of my music “on the road.” “Steppin’ Up” sounds like great with the windows down driving the back roads, the music washing over me like a friendly rain storm. Wherever you decide to listen to Kenny Shanker’s debut CD, you’ll enjoy the sonic ride. For more information, go to www.posi-tone.com.
Kenny Shanker has worked extensively since graduating from the Manhattan School of Music in 2001, playing with the New World Symphony, and the Tommy Dorsey and Nelson Riddle Orchestras, among others. The young alto saxophonist recorded his debut album as leader, Steppin’ Up, in April 2009 but it’s taken almost two-and-a-half years for it to be released. It’s a shame that it has stayed in the vaults for so long, for Shanker’s melodic and accessible brand of straight-ahead jazz is immediately enjoyable, with enough twists and turns to reward repeated listening.
Steppin’ Up also benefits from the musical talents of some exceptional sidemen, including pianists Art Hirahara and Mike Eckroth and guitarist Lage Lund. Shanker engages with each of these players in some delightfully melodic interactions, while they all fashion solos of quality.
Shanker wrote all but one of Steppin’ Up‘s ten pieces, possessing a knack for crafting tunes that mix an easy, engaging, melodic center with something a little deeper and more complex. “Winter Rain” opens with Shanker’s simple, clear alto line and Hirahara’s left-hand chords, but gets a little edgier thanks to Hirahara’s slightly jagged solo. The hard bop of “Fifth and Berry” features some tight unison playing from Shanker and Lund, while Brian Fishler’s percussive drive ensures that the tune has a real sense of movement. “Quirk,” despite its title, is one of the most straightforward tunes on the album, with Shanker’s alto taking on a smoother, more ’80s sound than usual, while “Sarah” is a soulful ballad, with delicately evocative solos from Shanker and Eckroth, whose playing lends the tune a hint of sadness.
Shanker closes Steppin’ Up with a languid, melancholy, version of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” Both Shanker and Eckroth solo with sensitivity, while the tune’s mood is enhanced by some deftly understated playing from Fishler and bassist Yoshi Waki. This understated approach sums up much of the album—Shanker can blow, but has the maturity and musical awareness to realize that his melodies often work best when he keeps things simple. The resulting album is impressive and hints strongly that Shanker is a player to watch.