November 9, 2020 @ 7:30 pm – 11:00 pm UTC-7
Even boasting a very personal diction when discoursing, the young American saxophonist Sam Dillon brings an impressive amount of different influences to his ripe sophomore album, Force Field. Strongly inflected with the hard bop idioms from the 50’s and early 60’s, Dillon, who possesses an outstanding technique, offers a classic-derived repertoire bolstered by creative spins that show how swinging bop and post-bop traditions can be absorbed, transformed, and delivered fresh with a stamp of his own.
Dillon is primarily assisted by a rhythm section that comprises Theo Hill on piano, David Wong on bass, and Anwar Marshall on drums. However, he changes configurations, which range from trio to sextet, with the addition of guest musicians on selected tunes. They are alto saxophonist Andrew Gould, trumpeter Max Darche, and trombonist Michael Dease, who provides one of his colorful tunes to the song list, namely, “Go For The Jugular”. Flaunting a warm horn arrangement in a style reminiscent of Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, this straight-ahead piece features all guests as soloists, with Dillon spearheading the sequence with rich Coltrane-isms that gravitate toward the unbeatable fluency of his Blue Train-phase.
Before that, the title track packs a punch with its grooving modal post-bop force and a scrupulous, dancing melody composed of attractive intervals. If the theme statement infuses a bit of the Sonny Rollins’ melodic charm, the rest is purely Coltrane/McCoy stuff, with Hill employing exuberant rhythmic spasms buoyed by opportune left-hand jabs, and Dillon oscillating between effortless roundness and smart obliquity in his lines. This spiritual atmosphere is partly passed to Dillon’s uptempo “Hit It”, whose main statement also incorporates that joyous briskness that characterizes the music of Lee Morgan and John Coltrane. Marshall is called into action here, exhibiting his drumming skills after effusive the solos and before the repositioning of the theme.
Hill switches to Fender Rhodes to bring that post-bop pulse-quickening to Chick Corea’s “Straight Up and Down”, another uptempo piece with a bouncy gait and incisive trumpet lines akin to Woody Shaw and Freddie Hubbard. He continues to explore the famous electric piano in a sentimental rendition of “Marionette”, a discoverable composition by Swedish pianist Lars Jansson, which contrasts with the familiar bebop flow of Parker’s “Dexterity”, here delivered in the classic sax-bass-drums format.
With a relaxing bossa temper, “Shift” is the slowest and perhaps the less interesting tune on the record. Predominantly adhering to 4/4 motions and burning up the miles with characteristic sounds, Force Field is uneven, but still enclosing moments of pure jazz passion worth checking out.
Interstellar Adventures makes good on the promise displayed on 2017’s Promethean, the young pianist’s debut for Posi-Tone, and 2015’s Live at Smalls, his first as a leader. It also far surpasses them in originality and pluck. Where the earlier outings, particularly Promethean, showed Hill to be an imaginative player with one eye focused keenly on tradition and the other eagerly searching beyond it, the new set finds Hill increasingly willing to burn bridges with his influences and carve out his own territory.
Like its predecessor, the new release is a trio recording, with Rashaan Carter playing basses and Rudy Royston drums. Half of its 10 tracks are penned solely by Hill, including the opening title track, which eases in cautiously, allowing the group to find its way around the melody before agreeing to embellish and discard as needed. Hill’s “Gyre” skitters, slashes and sways, leaving Carter and especially Royston to their own devices as the pianist, in an absorbing solo section, offers transitory single-note suggestions he may or may not choose to stick with very long. It’s almost giddy in its gleeful execution, balancing mathematical precision with frenzied abandon.
Of the covers, Tony Williams’ “Black Comedy” and Jan Hammer’s “Thorn of a White Rose” are corkers. Hill isn’t one to use velocity for its own sake; when he does, as in the former, he dazzles but his point isn’t so much to pat his own back as to keep the tune in constant forward motion. Royston, on the latter, nods to the megaton drumming of Elvin Jones, who cut the tune four decades earlier, but he never loses sight of the new places Hill and Carter opt to take it.
Pianist and composer Theo Hill, a native of Albany, New York, first studied jazz piano with the late (and, in her neck of the woods, legendary Lee Shaw (1926-2015). After graduating from the Jazz Conservatory at SUNY/Purchase, Hill moved to New York City. Slowly yet steadily, he has built quite the resume working with drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, trumpeter Wallace Roney, vocalist Gregory Porter, and many others. He has recorded with trombonists Frank Lacy and David Gibson; currently he holds down the piano chair in the Mingus Big Bang and with T. S. Monk. His debut album. “Live at Smalls“, came out on SmallsLIVE in 2014 and featured a quintet. Hill now records for Posi-Tone Records which released his label debut, a trio date titled “Promethean“, in May of 2017.
Hill’s new Posi-Tone recording, “Interstellar Adventures“, features the first-rate rhythm section of Rashaan Carter (acoustic and electric bass) and the sublime Rudy Royston (drums and percussion). The ensemble alternately dances, roars, pounds, caresses, and glides its way through a program that includes five Hill originals plus five songs by composer/performers you could say are the pianist’s influences and musical mentors. “Promethean” only had one original amidst the 11 tracks, with two composed by the late Kenny Kirkland. You can hear the influence of that pianist’s appealing ballad “Revelations” as well as on Hill’s originals, such as the title track. It’s in the turn of a phrase or the attack at the beginning of the solo; not overt but there. Hill also covers Marcus Miller’s “For Those Who Do” and one can hear how his flowing lines show that pianist’s influence.
Instead of looking and listening for influences, dig into the music itself. The trio shines on Tony Willams’s “For Those Who Do“, a fiery number that flies forward on the propulsive bass lines and the thunderous drums. Hill taps into those energy sources, builds on its intensity, and delivers a stunning performance. Sam Rivers’s “Cyclic Episode” may start in a gentler fashion but soon builds up its own head of steam. This time, it’s Royston responding to Hill’s flying fingers and matching him phrase for phrase, power to power. Carter’s bass is the foundation but he really captures the intensity. Hill moves to electric piano and Carter to electric bass for a romp through Jan Hammer’s “Thorn of a Wild Rose“, a tune the composer recorded with both Charlie Mariano and Elvin Jones. The thick bass groove, the delightful cymbal work, and the leader’s strong piano work give the song a real lift.
Hill’s originals shine as well. After an introspective opening statement, “The Comet” thunders out on the power of the pianist’s left hand (a hint of McCoy Tyner here), Carter’s intelligent bass work, and Royston’s percussive storm. It’s breathtaking music at any volume but, played very loud, might just bring down walls. The album closes with “Enchanted Forest” with both Carter and the pianist going “electric.” The bassist gets the first solo, showing a melodic side to his obvious impressive technique. Hill approaches the electric piano in a different manner, somewhat quieter, and enjoying the sonic capabilities of the instrument. It’s a placid finish to an imposing program.
The interaction of the three musicians, the intelligent compositions, and knowing the strengths of the rhythm section, all that and more makes “Interstellar Adventures” worth listening to again and again. Theo Hill is making the most of his many and varied collaborations and sideman gigs, maturing before our very ears. Going to be exciting to see and hear how he continues to grow.
Turn it up and feel the power:
The independent label Posi Tone Records has the mantra “…to provide the highest quality recordings of the most relevant musicians on today’s jazz scene.” Co-owners producer Marc Free and engineer Nick O’Toole have been doing just that since 1994. It seems 2018 will be no different. Free assembled his New Faces group from musician members of the Posi Tone stable of artists and produced a very satisfying new album aptly titled Straight Forward which will be released on January 12, 2018.
It’s a group of like-minded, young musicians who, based on this successful outing, have a long future together if they want it. The group includes Josh Lawrence’s trumpet, Roxy Coss’ saxophone, the gossamer touch of vibraphonist Behn Gillece and the young pianist Theo Hill with the rhythm section of Peter Brendler on bass and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums.
The group offers a tight, well executed set of music; compositions that were culled partially from the Posi-Tone archives, but also includes two original compositions by trumpeter Lawrence and three by vibraphonist Gillece. There is one Herbie Hancock composition, “King Cobra,” that is particularly representative of the 50’s and 60’s Blue Note era, a recording model that Posi-Tone has clearly fashioned their own musical aspirations after.
The set starts out with a Jon Davis swinger titled “Happy Juice.” Right away you perceive a chorus of instruments-trumpet, piano, saxophone and vibes-that have acquired the ability to meld their individual voices into a complimentary, unified sound that delights the ears. Trumpeter Lawrence has a clear easy flow to his playing. Coss’s saxophone tone is mellow and lustrous.Pianist Hill is rock steady throughout, but it is Gillece’s tubular vibe sound that subtly dominates here, driving the tune forward as the rhythm section of Brendler and Sperrazza provide the rhythmic base.
What I like about this group is that they relish ensemble playing over lengthy individual solos. The haunting “Delilah Was A libra” is opened with a penetrating lead in by Gillece. Hill and Coss offer two short but poignant solos before Lawrence enters with a brief but potent trumpet statement. It’s the group speak that you come away admiring here.
On Brian Charette’s jaunty “West Village” the front line states the melody in unison, before Josh Lawrence’s muted trumpet solo raises the heat. A brief but imaginative solo by Coss leads to Gillece’s darting vibes play. The notes seem to take flight off his mallets like wood nymphs alit in a forest. This song was originally played by an organ trio, but here the group utilizes the additional instrumentation to great effect as Brendler and Sperrazza drive the beat.
The Herbie Hancock classic, “King Cobra,” is played by a tight front line stating the serpentine melody in unison, with a sound reminiscent of the old Blue Note magic. Pianist Hill’s repeated chord lines sets the time throughout. Saxophonist Coss’s tone is buttery soft, uncluttered and warm and Hill plays nicely off her changes of direction. Lawrence’s trumpet solo is well paced and understated. The music captures much of the electricity of the original recording.
The album continues with bright “I’m Here” which offers solos by Lawrence, Hill, Coss and Gillece respectively. The first of Gilcee’s three compositions on the album is up next with “Down the Pike,” a medium tempo swinger that offers some clever changes. Josh Lawrence’s’ driving blues, “Hush Puppy” keeps the proceedings moving with some Tyner-esque-like playing by Hill and a pulsing beat by Brendler. Lawrence’s muted trumpet, Coss’s mellow horn and Gillece’s vibes all add to the mix as Sperazza dazzles on traps.
Perhaps my favorite cut on the album is “Vortex,” a circular composition that features some of Coss’s most evocatively sensitive playing and spurs the vibraphonist/composer Gillece into some of his most exploratory adventures on the album. This one is bound to become a classic.
The music continues with trumpeter Lawrence offering a Latin inspired composition titled “Fredreico.” Sperrazza and Brendler hold down the Latin groove admirably.
“Follow Suit” is another Gillece composition that was clearly influenced by those sterling Blue Note years. The vibraphonist double-times his playing here as Brendler and Sperrazza maintain the torrid pace. Lawrence and Coss both offer fiery solos and Hill’s piano solo is frenetic.
The set closes with the easy, feel-good gospel-influenced Jared Gold composition “Preaching.”
Not sure if New Faces was intended as a one off to start the year, but with such an auspicious first album, perhaps New Faces is destined to become a regular Posi Tone featured group.
Theo Hill is a young pianist who hails from Albany, NY who now lives and works in New York City. Over his decade-plus in the city, Hill has worked and recorded with the likes of trumpeter Charles Tolliver, trombonist Frank Lacy, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, saxophonist Dave Liebman, trombonist David Gibson (he’s on two CDs with his band), the Mingus Big Band, and many others. Hill’s debut CD, “Live at Small’s” (Small’s LIVE), was a quintet issued in October of 2014.
His new recording, “Promethean“, is his first for Posi-Tone Records and is a trio date with bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Mark Whitfield, Jr. One might be tempted to assume as he reads the program that, with the exception of the pianist’s composition “The Phoenix“, that this CD is an homage to Hill’s influences. There are two pieces from Tony Williams (“Pee Wee” and “Citadel“) and Kenny Kirkland (“Blasphemy” and “Chance“) as well as one each from Bobby Timmons, Herbie Hancock, Victor Lewis, Hale Smith, Chick Corea, and Duke Pearson. The lone original is a tribute to McCoy Tyner; one hears it in the muscular chords and the powerful surges from the rhythm section.
Right from the opening notes of Timmons’s “This Here“, one can hear that Hill is a masterful pianist and that he can “swing” with force, joy, and purpose, Messrs. Nakamura and Whitfield, Jr. are equal partners in this adventure, keeping the rhythms percolating and creating foundations that not only support but also push the pianist and songs forward. Smith’s “I Love Music” (recorded, most notably, by Ahmad Jamal in 1970) is given a funky treatment with the rhythm section locked into the groove. Corea’s “Litha” rises on Latin rhythms into a high-energy romp (note that fast-paced “walking” bass and superb cymbal work) – it’s on pieces such as those that one hears the real joy Hill and the Trio can create. Yes, the pace may be funky or frantic but the music transcends mere technique. There’s such a handsome solo piano reading of “Chance“, with its floating chords and articulated single-note lines, illuminating an artist not afraid of making a song his own.
The main definition of promethean is “daringly original and creative.” That may be hyperbolic in some instances and I wish to modify it just a bit in the case of Theo Hill. He’s a daring musician who is continually creative, willing to take chances with the “tradition” without being sacrilegious. No need to shoot the (jazz) messenger but to honor him and her by continuing to move the music forward. Enjoy “Promethean.”
If you follow trombonist David Gibson on Facebook, or are FB “friends” with him, you’re likely familiar with some of his posts that cover a whole host of topics, from the power of music, to what it means to be a professional, how to act on a gig, how to communicate with people you might not agree with, etc. In these posts he is always positive, insightful, and generally optimistic.
Now I tend to be pretty cynical and dark, and sometimes when I see one of his posts like this, especially if it’s early in the morning, I might let my “not only is the glass half empty, the glass is cracked” outlook get the best of me and start to write it off. But then I invariably find the grown-up part of my brain saying to me “dude, get over yourself, he’s right.” And then I think about what he said for a bit and move on with my day, often having found what he’s said to have some kind of resonance or significance with things I often think about or experience.
I cannot say I know Gibson, I’ve never seen him play, and I only know his music from his records. But based on my limited interaction with him online and knowing his music, I can say that the world needs more musicians, and people, like him. This is clearly evident on his newest album on Posi-tone: Inner Agent. It, along with his previous albums, exudes all the qualities that I’ve come to respect about him. It’s honest, positive, straightforward, swinging, hip (I mean just look at his fashion sense—I’m super envious of his suit collection), and there’s no b.s. or posturing. And it’s clear from the music that his bandmates—trumpeter Freddie Hendrix, pianist Theo Hill, bassist Alexander Claffy, and drummer Kush Abadey—appreciate and share these qualities as well. Simply put, Inner Agent is one of the finest straight ahead albums of the year and is as good as contemporary hard bop gets.
The album charges right out of the gate with the uptempo title track. Aside from Gibson and Hendrix’s burning solos, one of the most impressive aspects of the performance is the hookup between Hill and Abadey, who play off each behind the solos, pushing the soloists forward while filling gaps with jabs, fills, and well-placed accents. Hearing Gibson borrow a figure from one of Hill’s comped lines during his solo shows that these guys are locked in. And it would be a mistake to overlook Claffy, whose unwavering walking bass holds everything together. “I Wish I Knew” is so good, so soulful, and so full of optimism that it’s just about enough to restore my faith in humanity. The tune’s melody and easy swing could be straight out of a classic 50s or 60s Blue Note album. Gibson’s solo exudes a declarative joyfulness, Hendrix turns the heat up a notch with a few bluesy choruses, while Hill takes a direct and unadorned approach, using a series of single note lines. The quintet expands to a septet on “The Scythe” with the addition of tenor saxophonist Doug Webb and alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis. The four-horn front line adds power to Gibson’s tune, which features an angular bridge that ratchets up the tension. Webb wastes no time working up a lather, while Curtis and Gibson take a more measured approach. The tune is so well-suited for an open-ended blowing session I wish it had been twice as long to give the soloists more time to stretch out. “Gravy” is a medium, sly funk—it’s as if the band is in on a big secret, but we’re not quite hip enough to know what’s up.
Like his last album entitled Boom!, Inner Agent closes with a cover of a pop tune. Whereas the former ended with Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” he finishes the latter album off with George Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun.” I admit that when I first saw that each of those were on the albums my inner cynic took hold and almost cringed. But then I thought “wait, ok, change the world, ok, things are pretty messed up, the world could use some changing.” And with “Here Comes the Sun”: “oh man, I’ve heard some bad Beatles covers, I hope this isn’t lame.” [*wrong, hits reset button*] “wait, this is hip, ok, ‘here comes the sun…it’s alright,’ we could use some sun and optimism and positivity.”
Perhaps it’s fitting that I’m finishing this review on the eve of the 2016 presidential election, which in all its ugliness, drama, immaturity, and divisiveness has made it painstakingly clear that for a great number of Americans, cynicism and exploiting people’s fears and base emotions remain effective tools for achieving one’s goals, whether they be profit, ratings, clicks, fame, or power. By listening to Inner Agent and following him online, David Gibson reminds me that music has the power to uplift and to share positive energy with all who encounter it, thereby helping to shed our cynicism. If only we’d listen.
I have to begin this review by complimenting Positone Records. Every CD this company has sent to me reflects a high quality of jazz artists. It’s been a joy listening to each and every one of them. David Gibson is no exception to this course of excellence. “Inner Agent”, the title tune, is an original composition by Gibson and sets the mood for this entire project. It’s Straight Ahead, no nonsense jazz, just the way this reviewer likes it. Using a quartet of horns to thicken the musical brew, Gibson graciously shares his stage with a group of seasoned musicians. He lets each one solo and sparkle like jazzy jewels. Hendrix is compelling on trumpet, drawing the listener in with big bold tones and dynamic technique. Doug Webb always brings tenor madness to the studio, playing from the heart and Caleb Curtis on alto is a saxophone force to be enjoyed and celebrated. This is my first time hearing Theo Hill on piano and he’s impressive, innovative and skilled, knowing just how to comp and support the artist, then stretching out with solos that make you pay attention. Abadey on drums is powerful and relentless, giving this band the push and rhythmic inspiration they need to spiral up and over his percussive chops. However, it is Gibson’s trombone voice that bathes in the glow of a singular spotlight. They say that trombone is the closest instrument to human vocals and Gibson sings with emotional dexterity and polished technique. He’s an accomplished composer as well as a musician and offers four original tunes on this project. One is “The Scythe”, a high-powered, Be Bop tune that burns with fiery energy with Gibson’s solo floating solidly atop the rhythm section. You can hear Abadey’s drums throughout, egging the band on like a matador’s cape in front of an angry bull. I love the mix on this recording. Bassist, Alexander Claffy, has written “AJ”, a moderate tempo ballad that allows Gibson to set the melodic theme along with his horn section, sometimes harmonically but mostly in unison. If I were to have any criticism, it would be that Gibson’s improvisational solos are way too short. Gibson tackles two compositions by my Detroit home-boy, trombonist Curtis Fuller; “The Court” and “Sweetness”, where he shows admirable technique and self-expression. This is an album of music to be treasured in any collection. Perhaps Curtis Fuller said it best when he gave Gibson this dynamic compliment:
“Out of all the young players I hear in the music today, David is one of very few who speaks the language of jazz.”
Trombonist David Gibson has created a fine modern mainstream jazz album with his fourth Posi-Tone release. Performing alongside him are Freddie Hendrix on trumpet, Theo Hill on piano, Alexander Claffy on bass, Kush Abadey on drums. Saxophonists Doug Webb and Caleb Curtis guest on a couple of tracks as well. The title track “Inner Agent” opens the album in an up-tempo fashion with bright sounding piano and swinging cymbal play supporting punchy and brash horn riffs. There is an excellent section for the piano, bass and drums unit that swings very hard. “Axe Grinder” sets a funky groove with the horns harmonizing and then breaking free for solo sections, including some stratospheric trumpet. Gibson takes a rapid and smoothly executed trombone solo over rippling piano and subtle bass and drums. There is a fast and exciting sendoff to “The Sythe” with ripe saxophone soloing over muscular playing from the rhythm section, and Abadey’s drums driving the music hard. Gibson gets another nice featured spot, ramping the tempo down just a hair and developing a confident and well-articulated solo. “The Court” has a bouncy and interesting foundation from the piano, bass and drums, while strutting horns come out together and then diverge in short statements before returning to complete this pithy and concise tune. There is a medium tempo sensibility to “Gravy” with swaggering horns sounding good over strong rhythm and percussively comped piano. Gibson’s trombone glides through the rhythm with aplomb demonstrating an appealing tone to his music. The album is completed with a tasteful and restrained version of The Beatles “Here Comes the Sun.” The horns are very subtle and it isn’t until the piano references the melody that the penny drops and you hear what is happening. This performance is emblematic of the entire album, because it is music that is tasteful and thoughtful and should be well received by mainstream jazz fans.
Tim Niland – Music and More blog