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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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Travis Sullivan’s “New Directions” gets another look…

The Posi-Tone debut is a delightful and slightly eclectic mix of well grounded original compositions and some covers you may expect. Sullivan tends to opt for the more stylistic approach as opposed to coming from the speed is king and odd meter school which does little more than make the artist the newest member of the flavor of the month club.
Sullivan’s original work is intriguing with no imposed self limitations there are variations in tempo, mood and lyrical direction that while still firmly planted within the modern jazz genre allow for a more multi-directional approach to his compositions. As a 4tet Sullivan has struck gold in terms of forming a cohesive unit. The hard bop oriented “Tuneology” walks dangerously close to the more free jazz cliff but never pushes the listener over the edge as there is always an air of accessibility to these tunes. “Autumn In NH” is a bit more wistful if not slightly melancholy but adds a nice touch of depth and character to an incredibly well paced and evenly developed recording. Ebb and flow. The cover of the Rodgers and Hart “Spring Is Here” borders on gorgeous. The most unlikely surprise of the release would be the cover of the Tears For Fear’s 1980’s pop smash, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” What the tune lacks in the transference of jazz sensibilities it more than makes up for with the whimsical swing of Sullivan and and pianist Mike Eckroth.
Walking the musical tightrope between instrumentalist and composer has allowed Sullivan the opportunity to create one of the more surprising releases of 2011. The one they may have gotten away! If you missed this release initially it is well worth the time to check it out now!
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Peter Hum reviews “more-altos-you-ought-to-know-about”…

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)
Patrick Cornelius

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)
Travis Sullivan

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)
Kenny Shanker

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 RainHome 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.

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The Jazz Word reviews Travis Sullivan “New Directions”…

Alto saxophonist Travis Sullivan leads a perceptive quartet through a diverse set of his original tunes and a couple of covers on New Directions, his third release as a leader and debut for Posi-Tone Records. Aside from small group endeavors, the New York-based Sullivan leads his own 18-piece big band Bjorkestra, performing arrangements of the Icelandic pop icon Bjork.

Sullivan has a mature, lyrical sensibility, emphasizing melody and clearly focused thematic developments in his solos. Although at home in a variety of contemporary settings, including the Tears for Fears pop anthem “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Sullivan excels on the disc’s more straight-ahead fare. Tunes such as the boppish “Tuneology,” the Rodgers and Hart ballad “Spring is Here” and the funk-meets-swing title track serve the saxophonist’s expressive leanings.

Pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Brian Fishler play up to the challenge of Sullivan’s compositional demands, bringing a relaxed playfulness to the odd-metered “Hidden Agenda” and the open-ended “Autumn in NH,” a conversational vehicle with inspired results.

An enticing quartet with thoughtfulness and intensity, Sullivan and crew are forward thinkers with a firm understanding of what the tradition has to offer. New Directions is a stand-out jazz disc worthy of repeated listening.

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AAJ’s Glenn Astarita on Travis Sullivan “New Directions”…

New Directions could signify a paradigm shift for alto saxophonist Travis Sullivan’s eighteen-piece Björkestra, a unit dedicated to performing arrangements of Icelandic pop vocalist Björk. Sullivan goes back to his fundamental mainstream jazz roots on the lyrically rich New Directions, assembled with memorable comps and sterling interplay from his quartet. Sullivan’s vocal-like tonalities and muscular alto work casts an acoustic game plan that often yields electrifying results.

Sullivan generates memorable compositions while injecting a spirited aura into the program, making “Tuneology” serve as a fitting analogy for his sensitized approach via a brisk, tight-knit bop groove, interspersed with drummer Brian Fishler’s snappy Latin beats. Sullivan’s fluent phraseology is wrapped into a full-bodied sound amid his cunning improvisational segments while the rhythm section sizzles, complemented by pianist Mike Eckroth, who dances around the primary theme.

The quartet reaches for the stars on “Tuneology.” With memorable licks and gravitating performances, the music attains a higher level of interest, countering the influx of post-bop modernism that sometimes moves forward without much traction or significance. Sullivan abides by a qualitative musical ethic on New Directions.


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Lucid Culture reviews Travis Sullivan “New Directions”…

Travis Sullivan’s New Directions Kicks off the Summer Properly

The trouble with a lot of jazz albums is that a lot of bands can’t translate their interplay from the stage or even the rehearsal room to the studio. As a result, they sound stiff – or as if everybody was just trying to lay down their parts and get the hell out. Alto saxophonist and Bjorkestra bandleader Travis Sullivan’s New Directions, on the other hand, sounds like a live show, except with studio-quality acoustics. It’s a great summertime album, brightly tuneful, full of good spirits and inspired playing from pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Brian Fishler (AKA Frank Feta of Richard Cheese’s band). Sullivan favors a clear, uncluttered tone and strongly melodic extrapolations rather than any crazed, heavy breathing. But as attractive as the melodies are, this isn’t lightweight by a long shot. Intense? Not particularly. Subtle and fun? You bet.

The opening track, Jamia’s Dance works vividly expansive Sullivan explorations of an absurdly catchy central hook. Autumn in NH is not a drinking song as you might expect (New Hampshire tops all states but Wyoming in per-capita alcohol consumption) but rather a morosely lyrical mood piece that stretches the band as far out into free territory as they go here. A hard-charging, samba-tinged number, Tuneology picks up the pace and sets the stage for Hidden Agenda, which begins as a funky mid 70s style crime movie tune with echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver theme – the hidden agenda here seems to be a big, long crescendo that involves everybody in turn, with a funny Coltrane quote, a bass solo that nimbly and energetically works a piano line and a spiraling Sullivan salvo out. They cover Rodgers and Hart’s Spring Is Here slowly and make it much more wintry that you would expect; the catchy, sprightly Georgie contrasts an understated dark soul piano pulse with Sullivan spinning around brightly overhead. Their cover of Tears for Fears’ odious 80s schlockfest Everybody Wants to Rule the World is a real shocker – it’s unrecognizable until they hit the hook, almost, Sullivan defiantly evading its cloying quality and then immediately messing up the tempo, taking it out on a limb and handing it over to Eckroth. Third time around, Panascia’s panacea is to make it funky.

A jazz waltz, Leap of Faith is another track with a pensive undercurrent beneath Sullivan’s stunningly effortless, good-natured glissandos, Eckroth adding a wee hours wink, Sullivan making an abrupt shift in a much more straight-ahead direction afterward, setting the stage for a deliciously swirling crescendo. It’s the kind of moment you see in concert a lot, which doesn’t make it onto studio albums as much as it should. An enigmatically bustling song without words, Magic Monday has Sullivan and Eckroth trading busily opaque solos over Panascia’s muscular pulse. The album winds up with the title track, an aggressive, terse, catchy straight-up strut that wouldn’t be out of place in the JD Allen catalog, Panascia leaping to a sprint and then back again, Fishler finally getting a chance to cut loose and hit hard and makes the absolute most of it. File this under melodic jazz, yet another triumph for the Posi-Tone label, who in this decade are making a mark much in the same way that Impulse did in the 60s. Sullivan’s next gig is with Bjorkestra on June 14 at 9 at Highline Ballroom.


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Bruce Lindsay reviews Travis Sullivan “New Directions”….

Travis Sullivan’s New Directions, his Posi-Tone debut, is a rewarding trip through a mix of strong, self-penned, tunes and an unusual combination of covers. The saxophonist leads his quartet with style, emphasizing musicality and emotional engagement over displays of technique, and creating a sparkly collection that emphatically establishes his talents as a composer as well as a saxophonist.

The altoist’s compositions are firmly within the modern jazz tradition, but there’s a variety in pace, rhythm and mood that keeps things interesting. The hard-bop “Tuneology” and silky-smooth “Georgie” are immediately engaging, with sprightly and positive melodies that enable all four musicians to shine. “Jamia’s Dance” and “Autumn in NH” represent Sullivan’s more reflective side, with some beautifully flowing lines from Sullivan and pianist Mike Eckroth. “New Directions” is an upbeat “bop-meets-funk” swinger that benefits greatly from Brian Fishler’s bouncy, skipping, drums and a strong and slinky beat from Eckroth and bassist Marco Panascia.

Two classic tunes adorn New Directions. Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s standard, “Spring Is Here,” is lovely, with Sullivan firmly accenting its mournfully lush melody. Tears For Fears’ 1980s pop hit, “Everybody Wants To Rule The World,” gives Sullivan much less to work with, as it has none of Rodgers and Hart’s timeless beauty—though, to their credit, Sullivan and Eckroth both carve bright and swinging solos out of the melody.

New Directions is Sullivan’s first small band album since 1999’s As We Speak (Self Produced), which featured guitarist Rez Abbasi. Sullivan’s main ensemble in the intervening decade—the long-established, 18-piece Björkestra project, devoted to the Icelandic vocalist’s compositions—might suggest a more eccentric approach than that demonstrated on New Directions. Unconstrained by the structure of Björk’s songs, however, Sullivan takes a more straight-ahead approach to this quartet project. The result may well be a more accurate reflection of Sullivan’s musical philosophy, and certainly makes clear that he’s a player and composer to keep an eye on.

Track Listing: Jamia’s Dance; Autumn in NH; Tuneology; Hidden Agenda; Spring is Here; Georgie; Everybody Wants To Rule The World; Leap Of Faith; Magic Monday; New Directions.

Personnel: Travis Sullivan: alto saxophone; Mike Eckroth: piano; Marco Panascia: bass; Brian Fishler: drums.


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Amazing interview with Travis Sullivan….

Travis Sullivan composes and arranges with a fine flair. For about the last six years, he’s proven himself a strong leader of a large band, running the Bjorkestra, an acclaimed unit that plays slick, intricate and sometimes burning jazz versions of songs by popular Icelandic singer/songwriter Bjork.

It’s a band that’s an audience pleaser and one that musicians like to play in. In Milan, Italy, in December, trumpeter Dave Douglas was the guest soloist. “That’s a really fun group,” says Lauren Sevian, who has played baritone sax in the group (a chair she also holds in the Mingus Big Band). “The music is so cool—Bjork music for big band. It’s unbelievable. Travis Sullivan does a great job. Most of the arrangements are his. The musicians are all so incredible.”

Sullivan also working on special music to commemorate the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy in New York City.

So, if you ask some people, he’s a big band leader who’s adept in that arena. And they’re right, sort of. If you ask Sullivan, he’s an alto saxophonist who enjoys the challenge and adventurous interplay of small groups, and loves to improvise on his on his axe. His latest recording, New Directions, released in May, 2011 on Posi-Tone, attests to that. It’s a quartet that exhibits an alto player of strength, dexterity and imagination; it burns with a sympathetic and cooking rhythm section. It may come as a surprise to people who followed Sullivan’s work since coming out of the Manhattan School of Music. But it probably shouldn’t be. This cat is a player.

“It was time to start focusing on my own music and playing. That’s where my heart first and foremost lies,” he says, eagerly looking forward to the CD release. The title sums up those feelings and the fact that he’d like to focus more on his playing. “I definitely wanted to sort of make a statement about that. It’s a new direction based on events of the last six or seven years.”

“I consider myself, first and foremost, an improviser—a composer, second,” explains Sullivan. “One of my role models is someone like Wayne Shorter, where the composition and the improvisation try to integrate themselves into one whole. But when I created the Bjorkestra, it was always with the intention of creating a context for improvisation with her music, within a big band context. In theory, that’s great. It works. But I’m also a very democratic bandleader. When we perform, I try to spread the wealth very evenly in terms of solos. It makes it more accessible for an audience to hear over the course of an evening. Several horn players play, the different personalities and everything, rather than just one main soloist. The consequence is that I would only get to blow maybe one, possibly two, solos a night.”

The Bjork book is also primarily modal, so chord changes and similar attributes were not usually employed. “The improvisation side of things wasn’t always necessarily that challenging for me, in terms of what I practice, what I’ve studied and everything. So there was a part of my artistic expression that was put aside for the sake of performing this music,” says Sullivan.

“Where I draw most of my inspiration from is from jazz, and what I practice is definitely jazz. I transcribe a lot of artists, study the work of a lot of artists that are considered jazz artists. So I would like to think of myself as being a jazz guy. I think that with the Bjorkestra, it was questionable for a lot of people whether this music can really be considered jazz or not. I feel like it is. Jazz, for me, is taking and interpreting the best music of what’s going on right now—Bjork was an example of that—and making it one’s own: reinterpreting it, contextualizing it for improvisation. I really consider myself an improviser. That’s an integral part of jazz.”

Sullivan is joined on the record by Mike Eckroth on piano, Marco Panascia on bass and Brian Fishler on drums. The tunes, eight of ten originals, have different feels, but are all in the jazz realm. They find Sullivan with expressive swagger at times, and at other times with a more smooth, peaceful, but probing mode. Everyone in the rhythm section is on top of things, supportive, creative, and tight. “Tuneology” is the closest to hard bop, and the band gives a fine accounting on that front. “Autumn in New Hampshire” (Sullivan hails from there) is a ballad that shows how Sullivan can wring emotion from a nice melody.

He wrote the music for the record with a small group in mind, and some of the writing goes back several years. “The oldest one was written about 10 years ago,” Sullivan says. “I was always writing when I was leading the big band, but having the intention to play it with a smaller ensemble. I’m very pleased with the way it came out. We did it all in one eight-hour session. … There are always things about myself as a player that I would like to do better. But I feel like the spirit and the energy is there. It comes across really well, and everybody plays really well on the record.”

Spirit and energy are things that come across in Sullivan’s jazz. But as a kid growing up in the 1980s in New Hampshire, he didn’t hear a lot of jazz. He was playing sax from the age of 10, and piano at 12, and it was quirky events in high school that led to a jazz enlightenment—but not the usual path. A friend in high school, a fellow saxophonist, had a collection of records, but it wasn’t the mainstream type of jazz that most people cut their teeth on. This friend had “all these avant-garde things—late Coltrane and stuff. We listened to that stuff, like Coltrane “Jupiter Variations.” We had no idea what was going on. We just thought it was kind of trippy and cool. … I got into jazz backwards. When I was in high school, I was listening to Albert Ayler, Coltrane, Dolphy.”

He also had an English teacher who started bringing him albums to check out. In that bunch wasPharoah Sanders and Art Ensemble of Chicago. “Then, one day he said he just got Sketches of Spain on CD. It blew his mind because he could hear everything. He started getting rid of his LP collection. He let me go through them and buy them for one dollar each. That’s what happened. I ended up buying about 30 albums from him. All this avant-garde jazz. … I got into (jazz) backwards.”

When Sullivan went off to college, he wasn’t majoring in music. He studied biochemistry. But the music department had a couple of big bands, and he played in one. “I played in the second big band my freshman year. Then I played in the top band my last three years there and ended up playing lead alto, which was great,” he recalls. “That exposed me to something.”

Trumpeter Taylor Haskins was a classmate, and trumpeter Dave Balou was getting his master’s degree there at the time. But for Sullivan, “I was interested in a totally different set of music. … Everybody there wanted to play straight- ahead stuff. I was a one of the avant-garde outcasts. I was interested in playing free jazz and free improvised music.” However, after exposure to more mainstream stuff— Clark Terry was an adjunct professor there, and there would be visits by people like Marshal Royal, Snooky Young, Al Grey, Milt Hinton and Frank Wess, Sullivan started going back to examine the music of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young and others.

By his junior year, Sullivan knew he wanted to pursue a life in music. He finished his degree and took a few years off, but continued studying music with George Garzone. That relationship lasted about three years, and it was Garzone who urged Sullivan to go to New York. Sullivan got into Manhattan School of Music, earned his master’s degree there and has been in New York ever since.

“When I got [to New York], I was blown away by the level of everybody there, as well as the city in general. I was going out a lot and hearing a lot of music. I played a few gigs here and there. After I graduated, I was doing a lot of quartet, quintet stuff that I was booking on my own.” In 1999, just after leaving the Manhattan School, he did his first recording with a quartet called As We Speak, with Rez Abbasion guitar and Ari Hoenig on drums.

By 2001, playing opportunities thinned out and he says he was “starting to get a little bored with the challenges of not making a lot of money. Doing the small group stuff … I was getting a little bit confused about how it was proceeding, how I was moving forward with the music. Then I started getting into the music of Bjork and started writing those arrangements. That evolved into forming the big band.

“The Bjorkestra started unfolding in a very magical way. From my perspective, it seemed to just have this energy behind it—sort of like a flower unfolding. I didn’t really try to have any control or expectations. So that’s what I’m trying to do now with these other projects: put them out to the world and see what happens.”

The Bjorkestra, even as its popularity grew, never got a huge amount of gigs. But to keep it moving, Sullivan would sometimes break it into a seven-piece group. “It gives me more opportunity to solo and really be out front as a saxophonist. That’s another thing too. I think a lot of my colleagues really forgot that’s what I was,” he says with a touch of humor. “A saxophonist first, not a big band arranger. A lot of my friends and colleagues in that band were people that I worked with. [They were] moving ahead with their solo careers. I’d look at that and say, ‘That’s really what I want more of.’ The difficulty with that is that it’s definitely the road way more traveled. I think it’s a little more challenging too [in a small combo] to stand out above the rest.”


Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra in Performance

So Sullivan is working with smaller groups, not just the quartet he recorded with, though he hopes to tour later this year in support of the CD. “Small groups are easier to work with,” he says. With the Bjorkestra, “I spend so much time contracting musicians, rehearsing, dealing with all different personalities … I want to make things a little bit easier on myself.”

Sullivan also has a project called the Casual Sextet, which has a rotating cast of members. “We gig every once in a while. I write more extended compositions for that group. I have another group called the Identity Crises, which has been going for about three years now. We’re starting to get a little bit of momentum. That’s more of a pop/jazz/fusion type of project. … That was the other stuff I was listening to when I was growing up. I listened to a lot of popular music. I still have a deep love for that music. And a lot of prog rock.” He notes, “There are a lot of different avenues I have for expression. I consider myself very lucky in that sense. It’s a matter of finding places to play, which I find challenging at times.”

Another band is CSP, which he leads with singer Kit Calvosa. Sullivan plays piano in that setting. “I enjoy that a lot too, being able to play with some great musicians and play that instrument as well, in a different context and different style than I usually find myself in. … We [Sullivan and Calvosa] have been co-writing songs for a couple of years now,” he says, but adds, “Really, the past couple of years for me have been taking the ship of my music career and trying to shift it; trying to figure out what the next direction is.”

The 9/11 project is called the Pilgrimage project, supplemented by a grant from New York State. It came about via a book of photographs Sullivan and his girlfriend came across in 2007 at a bookstore in Brooklyn. “It was a book of about 70 black-and- white photos of people looking at Ground Zero. This photographer called Kevin Bubriski had gone down there in the months following [the collapse of the World Trade Center] and taken photos capturing people’s expressions, just looking at the disaster. I had this real visceral reaction to it. It put me back in that moment where I was one of those people. I went down there back in November [2001], when you could see the towers still partially standing. It was a very deep emotional reaction.”

His girlfriend noted that the 10th anniversary would be coming up and that Sullivan should write music to accompany the photos. Sullivan loved the idea. He contacted the photographer, who was also enthused.

“I really want to do this thing right: get the right musicians for it, pay them well. Just do it right, so it will be a really nice tribute in memory of the 10th anniversary of that,” says Sullivan. “The plan is to debut it the week of 9/11. That’s when I’d really like the first performance to be. I don’t have a venue set yet. I’m kind of holding back and waiting to see what the money situation is going to be. If the money’s there, I might even try to do something at a less-than-traditional performance space. I’m not sure what it would be.”

In the meantime, Sullivan, like many Big Apple musicians, is hustling for gigs, getting outside work when he can, teaching some students. He’s also pushing more sideman gigs, of which he didn’t get many because of the perception he was more of a big band guy. “But I’ve been trying to get out there a little more—play other people’s music. I am really interested in that.” Posi-Tone is already talking about doing another album with Sullivan, he says, and a new Bjorkestra album, “Live at the Jazz Standard,” is likely to be released later this year.

ullivan knows there’s work ahead and see positive things continuing. “I am very lucky that I have the opportunity to play with all these great musicians—the opportunities I’ve already had, things I’ve already done, bringing a full big band over to Europe and getting to play with Dave Douglas. If somebody told me that five years ago, I’d be like, ‘Jeez. I can’t believe that.’ Now that it’s over, I’m like, ‘Why am I not doing that every day?’ It’s the sustainability and developing some continuity that is really my next endeavor.”
Selected Discography

Travis Sullivan, New Directions (Posi-Tone, 2011)
Travis Sullivan’s Bjorkestra, Enjoy (Koch, 2008)
Sean Nowell, Firewerks (Posi-Tone, 2007)
Travis Sullivan’s Project One, As We Speak (Travsul, 2001)






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SaxShed reviews Travis Sullivan “New Directions”….

Alto saxophonist Travis Sullivan has released his third record “New Directions” on Posi-tone Records. Known primarily for leading his Björkestra project, Sullivan has assembled The Travis Sullivan Quartet where he is joined by pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Marco Panascia, and drummer Brian Fishler.

According to Jazz Times, Travis Sullivan is “…a gifted alto saxophonist and improviser who has also developed a strong and commanding voice as a composer.” He has also earned a worldwide reputation as an alto saxophonist, pianist, composer, and arranger. Sullivan has penned 8 of the 10 modern jazz compositions here on “New Directions.” Rodgers & Hart’s Spring is Here and the Tears for Fears classic Everybody Wants to Rule the Worldround out the rest of the recorded selections.

The opening cut Jamia’s Dance begins with the powerful sound of Sullivan’s rhythm section of Eckroth, Panascia and Fishler. Sullivan’s soon unleashes his unique alto sound that is full of passion. He seems to be singing through the saxophone which seems somehow reminiscent of Jan Garbarek’s haunting sound.

Autumn In N.H. Like the preceding cut, showcases Sullivan’s haunting alto saxophone sound. It seems a bit more delicate with classical undertones. The interplay between the members of the quartet is wonderful, particularly the occasional implied meter changes by drummer Brian Fishler.

Tuneology is a great title for this swinging, hard bop-to-Latin tune. His streaming 8th notes speak the jazz language, yet in Sullivan’s own way. He never sounds contrived or cliché. A formidable piano solo is taken by Eckroth. There is also a wonderful release into the Afro-Cuban section during head and solos.

The sneaky and funky Hidden Agenda has a 70s cop show quality within its brief opening ostinato. Sullivan’s solo is not made of the predictable pentatonic/blues-born lines often used in such a setting. He plays more melodically, flirting briefly with some alternate fingerings in between shapely, cascading lines. Panascia deftly solos for the first time on bass.

Although The Travis Sullivan Quartet approaches the Rogers and Hart standard in their own refreshing way, I much prefer the sound of the group on Sullivan’s originals. The highlight for me on Spring Is Herecomes within Sullivan’s final cadenza.

Georgie, unlike Spring Is Here features a sound and style more in keeping with the rest of the recording. Sullivan’s solo is constructed melodically and has the quality of a French saxophone etude set to jazz. It is a refreshing approach that sets Sullivan apart from others. Mike Eckroth solos beautifully on piano before the final melodic statement.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World reminded this listener of the way in which Coltrane interpreted his hit My Favorite Things. There are actually few similarities but enough to make a comparison. The short quote of the initial melody is all that seems in common with the 80s Tears for Fears classic however the pentatonic melody allows for some clever reharmonization. Later in the tune, the of 3/4 or 6/8 time feel gives way to a shuffle and then back to the original feeling in three.

The playful and hopeful Leap Of Faith gives way to one of Sullivan’s best efforts on saxophone here. Eckroth solos second on piano, although his take is tamer than the ferocity of Sullivan’s improvisation. Sullivan again stretches on the vamp as the group gradually retards and diminishes to the final fermata.

Eckroth solos first and is given the opportunity to demonstrate his own melodic solo voice on Magic Monday. Sullivan’s solo is more angular than Eckroth’s yet it is a desirable contrast within Magic Monday. Panascia solos for only the second time. This solo features him well on bass, but it is not as lengthy as on Hidden Agenda.

The final, title track New Directions well represents what this group does best – play modern, original jazz compositions. Eckroth plays a punctuated solo initially constructed of streaming 8th notes and then broadening to more rhythmic variation. As before, Sullivan plays with a drive and fire that keeps this listener engaged. Fisher solos over the figure laid down by Eckroth and Panascia before Sullivan joins in on the final statement of the head and plays a fitting solo vamp all the way to the ending unison kicks.

Travis Sullivan’s curious saxophone sound is not modeled after any obvious choices. He is neither Cannonball nor Sanborn – just two predictable and prominent influences among alto saxophonists today. His resonating alto voice with wide vibrato may have some skeptics due to its originality, however I trust his sound and music will also find many fans.

You can find out more at Posi-tone Records.


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Richard Kamins reviews Travis Sullivan “New Directions”

Alto saxophonist-composer Travis Sullivan is, perhaps, best known for his 18-piece big band, Bjorkestra, an ongoing project in which he reimagines and reshapes the music of the Icelandic singer/songwriter and notorious shape-shifter.   In the midst of that heady project, one might forget that he himself is a strong writer and talented musician.

New Directions” should and will open eyes and ears to Sullivan’s ability to write for a small ensemble.  Joined by Mike Eckroth (piano), Marco Panascia (bass) and Brian Fischler(drums), Sullivan creates music that keeps the listener on his/her toes because not only is there a strong rhythmic pulse on most tracks but also what they play is involving, melodic and seeminglty without artifice.   “Jamia’s Dance” opens the program and sets the stage with its handsome melody, shifting rhythms, the leader’s sweet tone and Eckroth’s piano work that is both powerful and impressionistic. It’s the interplay of the rhythm section, the pianist’s ability to color the music and Sullivan’s vibrant alto saxophone that stands out. Even the sweet take of “Spring Is Here” displays a maturity of thought, no one rushing the beat, the long tones and “singing” quality of the alto and the truly complementary work of the rhythm section. And the emotional content of these pieces make them stand out – these songs are not just exercises in technique. Instead, they tell musical “stories”, are constructed so that one can’t miss the melodic content but also can hear how the solos grow from the thematic material. The other “cover” tune is a snappy take on “Everybody Wants to Rule The World“, the 1985 hit for the British duo Tears for Fears.  This is music that is alive and makes one think how good the quartet must sound in a “live” setting.

One other aspect stands out (for this reviewer) – these 10 songs are so rich with ideas that one does not immediately reach out for comparisons (i.e., Sullivan sounds like “fill-in-the-blank”, his writing is influenced by”so-and-so”.)  Just listen. Enjoy the lightness of the interactions, the heat of the solos and the quality of the work.  To find out more, go to