There’s a language in every art form, a code if you like, where practitioners speak, play, create, and although the words are specific, the message is universal. On this album the music invites the listener into the arena of four deeply connected jazz musicians. The compositional set and direction is led by an eminent creative force resident in Britain’s capital city. A mainstay of the New York scene in the 1980s he first came to international attention as a member of the legendary drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. A tenor saxophonist with a big tone, soulfulness and originality his individual sense of swing marked him as a powerful new force on his instrument. It’s been almost three decades since he made the life altering decision to move to London and in that time he has established a reputation that puts him at the forefront of jazz as both bandleader and educator. He’s collaborated with many great artists worldwide but it is with his own music that his true identity emerges and this recording marks tenor giant Jean Toussaint’s debut on the Lyte Record label.
Tate Song inhabits the quartet spaces drawn from many, but make no mistake this is very much the sound of Jean Toussaint. Conceived as a tribute to his singer-songwriter son, Tate Song sets out to paint a musical portrait of his personality. Mood Mode opens the recording, establishing the strength and unity of the ensemble with a medium tempo groove over a minor pedal into a short 7-bar swing release with chord changes. The melody highlights conversational exchanges between pianist Andrew McCormack and the tenor saxophone with swinging solos from both instruments. The piece closes with a short but effective colouring from drummer Troy Miller over a repeated figure in the rest of the band. Toussaint acknowledges the sudden passing of the influential pianist Mulgrew Miller on the next composition. He honours his close friend and fellow Blakey alumnus with an emotive piece, simply titled Mulgrew, that has the group breathing and pulsating together off Jean’s execution of the melody and improvisation. They draw on the freer avant-garde element of the music as they achieve a kind of swelling zen to great expressive effect. My Dear Ruby is dedicated to Jean’s daughter and although a swing laden composition in 4/4, it also draws on the freer approach as a contrast in the coda of the melody. The piece presents a solo form with 4 parts [A B A’ C] and parts A and A’ round off with a bar of 3/4. Bassist Larry Bartley gets the first opportunity to express himself after tenor and piano solos. Rice pushes the tempo up with Toussaint energising the entire group as he takes the first solo then McCormack locks in with the rhythm section as he delivers one of his strongest performances. Bartley follows and the group then play hits from the melody in support of Miller’s inventive solo that concludes with a nod to Art Blakey, which Toussaint follows with a quote from the Wayne Shorter composition, ‘Water Babies’, after the outgoing melody. Tate Song has the ingredients of a ballad played with a staggered sense of time because the conventional sense of groove is never allowed to settle. The rhythm section influences the feeling of how the melody sounds. Bartley’s playing, in conjunction with the more conventional approaches in piano and tenor, show his real gift in bringing off this approach which he sustains throughout the piece with Miller’s drumming also supporting the conception by painting around all the instruments. Tunnel Vision is a medium tempo Blues from McCormack’s pen and gives the whole band a chance to flex, with Toussaint’s solo trading with Miller as the natural centrepiece. Toussaint’s approach to These Foolish Things, the standard by Eric Maschowitz and Jack Strachey, is to play it at a medium tempo feel-good swing as opposed to its usual interpretation as a ballad. Miller is on brushes throughout the piece for a sensitive swinging reading with solos from tenor, piano and bass. The piece finishes with a gentle, short, poetic cadenza from Toussaint. The penultimate composition is Vera Cruz, a luscious piece from Brazilian maestro Milton Nascimento. Miller and Bartley provide a gentle groove over which Toussaint plays the lilting melody, building tension on a single tonality into McCormack’s release into his solo over the chord changes. Vista is a simple piece built on two chords with a straight 8th medium tempo groove and is the second of McCormack’s two compositional contributions. He sets up a reactive offbeat motif in his left hand as a contrast to the bass and drums rhythm, over which the melody is played on soprano saxophone. McCormack relishes playing in this soundscape as he builds his solo and creates energy, passing the baton to Jean on soprano who sings and swirls with great melodic intent and direction, supported by a wealth of ideas from the drums. This is a fitting conclusion to a strong set of music from one of the world’s most consistent and engaging musicians.
Tate Song showcases a band at the top of its game, that serves the music and its conception with verve and vigour. Packed with variety, Tate Song presents a vivid portrait and marks a high point on a journey that is continued with distinction. Jazz in the 21st century is well and truly alive in the music of Jean Toussaint.