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Richard kamins reviews Fowser/Gillece “Top Shelf”…

This was one of those weeks when music served as a “healing force, helped to ease the pain of the tragic events in Boston and elsewhere.  Driving home from work the other night, I put “Top Shelf” into the player;  it’s the 4th PosiTone Records release from the duo of Ken Fowser(tenor saxophone) and Behn Gillece (vibraphone) and the easy-going swing was a true panacea (sounding just as fine the next day and in the background as I write.)  Featuring the classy rhythm section of Steve Einerson(piano), Rodney Green (drums) and Hartford, CT, native Dezron Douglas (acoustic bass), the leaders also invited trombonist Michael Dease to add his burr-ey sound to a number of the tracks.  When Dease is in the group, as he is on the opening track, “Slick“, the music has a resemblance to the music of the Jazz Crusaders (pre-funk).  The blend of tenor and trombone really stands out as does the interaction of the vibes and piano.  When you add in the smart work of Green and Douglas, the music really flies.  “Stranded in Elizabeth” is an excellent example of the interaction and interplay.  Green really pushes beneath the vibes solo while Einerson’s Tuyner-esque supporting chords, along with the fine bass work, acts as a solid foundation for the soloists.

There’s a Latin tinge to “Unstoppable” as well as a snappy theme for the tenor and vibes.  In a short YouTube video that accompanied the CD’s release, the leaders mention the influence of Bobby Hutcherson’s work with saxophonist Harold Land and it is most evident on tunes such as this one and the up-tempo title track.  Green creates sparks beneath the hearty tenor solo and prods Gillece to produce one of his most notable solos on the recording.  Again, Einerson’s forceful chords and driving solo stand out.

Some may say that “Top Shelf” does not break new musical ground but what the CD offers an eager listener is a band comfortable with each other playing a repertoire born from the duo’s weekly gigs at Small’s Jazz Club in New York City.  Rodney Green, Steve Einerson and Dezron Douglas are super throughout, giving the music the energy it needs to stand out.

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Marc Myers goes “Top Shelf”…

In most cases these days, the best new jazz albums sound terrific from their opening notes. I audit about 15 new CDs daily and, in nearly every case, the most inspiring ones are exciting from the get-go. That’s largely because better musicians and their producers know that in today’s world of digital distractions, you have to come  out of the gate with your best stuff. Listeners no longer spend much time trying to figure out what musicians are trying to say and they aren’t very forgiving when feet drag.

A good example of a new album that starts strong and keeps on going all the way to the end is Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece’s Top Shelf (Posi-Tone). This hard-bop album pairs tenor saxophonist Fowser with vibist Gillece on 10 originals composed separately by the co-leaders. Top Shelf  is their fourth joint album and features Michael Dease on trombone, Steve Einerson on piano, Dezron Douglas on bass and Rodney Green on drums.

Fowser grew up in southern New Jersey and attended Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. He became a regular at local jam sessions before transferring in 2004 to William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J. Upon graduating in 2005, Fowser relocated to New York, where he often plays at Smoke and Smalls.

Behn Gillece also is from southern New Jersey and jammed in Philadelphia before moving to New York in 2006. He has appeared routinely at clubs in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia as well as at jazz festivals. He finished his graduate studies at SUNY Purchase in New York in 2008 and has won a string of competitions.

As you’ll hear, these two have a good thing going. Gillece jumps in aggressively with long, clean lines, complementing Fowser’s confident, insistent tenor. Dig Gillece on the lightly Latin Pequenina or Proximity, for example. Or Fowser onStranded in Elizabeth (N.J.) and Slick. And when they’re playing together, it sounds as if Fowser is telling a story and Gillece is taking it all down on a steel typewriter behind him. These two are magic.

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Dan Bilawsky reviews Fowser/Gillece “Top Shelf”…

The team of tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser and vibraphonist Behn Gillece has been steadily releasing music of a similar nature on the Posi-Tone label since its 2009 debut, Full View, hit the shelves. With this, the duo’s fourth album, Fowser and Gillece continue along the same path with nary a stylistic sharp turn, yet this one manages to stand out because of one important difference: a third man out front. The three previous recordings were leaders-and-rhythm dates but, with Top Shelf, the group opens the frontline door, inviting trombonist Michael Dease to join in.

The vibes-saxophone-trombone combination puts a slight aural twist on the formula that’s been at the heart of previous outings. Greater tonal and timbral complexity naturally comes to the fore with a trombone at play, and Dease’s skills as a soloist add volumes to this album; his horse neigh arrival and triplet excursions on “Due Diligence,” for example, steal the show. Every solo has head-turning potential, but the trombonist is, in some respects, underutilized; the presence of another frontline personality could have been cause for Gillece and Fowser to significantly expand their arranging/composing vision(s), but they don’t take the bait.

Instead, Fowser and Gillece continue to deliver swinging tunes and straight-eighth vehicles that bound along with enthusiasm and glee. Gillece remains the primary composer in this partnership, contributing seven of the album’s ten tunes, but Fowser also adds a few numbers to the playlist. The peppy “Pequenina,” with Dease and the leaders at the center of the action, and lightly drifting ballad, “For The Moment,” housing gorgeous rubato harmonic rainbows, prove to be Gillece’s best, standing apart from the rest in style and syntax. Fowser’s finest is the title track, a blues with a Latin rhythmic foundation that contains some strong solo work.

Top Shelf doesn’t necessarily break new ground for this duo, but it does find them in good form and good company, with Dease and a strong rhythm section onboard for a fun-filled ride.

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Brent Black reviews Fowser/Gillece “Top Shelf”…

Roughly 27 years ago Stan Getz made one of the finest duet recordings on the Blue Note label with pianist label. Now the aptly titled Top Shelf picks up where Poetry left off. Granted this release is a sextet with attitude but Fowser and Gillece and the modern jazz evolution of tenor saxophone and vibraphone. Michael Dease sits in on trombone and pushes the front line to the next dimension while the rhythm section of Steve Einerson on piano, Dezron Douglas and Rodney Green on drums take the ten original compositions with the obvious attitude of swing hard or go home! This fourth release may well be arguably the finest with their own special brand of swing. I once asked Posi-Tone drummer Jordan Young, “Do you learn swing or is an innate ability to find your own groove?” Young’s answer was probably the best I have hears and certainly an apt description of this stellar release when he replied “How do you know you are in love? Is it a simple feeling with complex nuances or is it something learned from watching others?”
There are almost too many highlights to list here. “Slick” along with “Ginger Swing” and “Top Shelf” are perfectly titles pieces for a release  that is “Top Shelf.” The Gillece tune has a cross mixture sound of the more traditional Blue Note and Impulse  sounds. A different type of swing, slightly disjointed but melodically accessible with a straight ahead flair other working bands struggle for years and still run dry. “Ginger Swing” is a minor key, deconstructed swing that creates a unique dynamic tension that most bands struggle with to this day. “Top Shelf” is minor blues, free and open ended.
The improvisational skill level within the band is off the charts (pardon the pun). Fowser and Gillece are like Getz and Tjader, while the physical presence has left the planet, their spiritual dynamic will continue to  move forth and grow as long as one of the finest straight ahead labels in Posi-Tone still exists.
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The Jazz Word on Fowser/Gillece “Top Shelf”…

Top Shelf is the fourth release for longtime conspirators Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece. Their brand of original straight-ahead jazz is heartfelt and swinging with an interesting mix of complexity and accessibility. Gillece’s vibraphone and Fowser’s tenor saxophone playing are equally grounded in the tradition with an aggressive approach to modern sensibilities. Both deliver memorable solos throughout, although tracks such as “Stranded in Elizabeth” and “Unstoppable” stand out with performances that seem especially inspired. Trombonist Michael Dease adds color to the proceedings and demonstrates his virtuosity on the samba “Pequenina.” A strong rhythm section comprised of pianist Steve Einerson, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Rodney Green elevates the session to a status that is indeed top shelf.