Traveling East-West With the Janczarski-McCraven Quintet

Traveling East West

TRAVELING EAST WEST / McCRAVEN: Intertwining Spirits. SIDDIK: Traveling East. GADJA: Daddy’s Bounce; Love Is. JANCZARSKI: Roaring Forties; Don’t Push That Button; Traveling West. SHAW: United. / Borys Janczarski, tenor sax; Rasdul Siddik, trumpet/flute/percussion; Joanna Gajda, piano; Adam “Szabas” Kowaleski, bass; Stephen McCraven, drums/percussion. / Warner Jazz 190295918668

This is a marvelously light, swinging, yet meaty jam session by a very talented mixed quintet—mixed in terms of both race and gender. Co-leader and saxophonist Borys Janczarski, a native of Warsaw, is especially proud of the fact that his drummer (and fellow leader) Stephen McCraven is a veteran of so many famous jazz groups that keeping them straight almost reads like a “Who’s Who” of jazz in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s: Archie Shepp. Pharoah Sanders. Freddie Hubbard. Yusef Lateef. Sam Rivers, Marion Brown. Mal Waldron. Kenny Barron. Harold Ashby (Duke Ellington’s last great tenor saxist…I saw him play with the Ellington band in 1973). Hank Crawford. James Moody (I saw him play with Miles Davis in 1969). Benny Golson. Arthur Blythe. David Murray. Jeez, couldn’t this guy keep a job? (Just kidding!!!!) But all of the musicians here are superb at what they do, and as a unit they have a definite world view, in the best sense of the word, towards jazz as a melting pot of different influences. Trumpeter Rasdul Siddik, for instance, was a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM), a collective that spawned such innovative musical minds as Henry Threadgill (see my appreciation of him here), Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams (AACM’s founder) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The straightahead opener, in fact, is a bit deceptive as this is a band that explores many various styles within this CD. Siddik’s wonderful Traveling East almost sounds like a cross between Juan Tizol’s Pyramid and some of the things Rabih Abou-Khalil has done over the years (minus the oud). Indeed, the tempo shifts and unusual timbres used (flute over frame drums and bowed bass) really captured my imagination as I’m sure it will do yours. My takeaway from this specific piece eventually became my feeling of the entire CD, that this is a band that subjugates the individual personalities to function as a cooperative unit. Their music is jazz in the traditional sense sometimes, at other times world music with improvisation. Very, very interesting.

But so too is Daddy’s Bounce by pianist Joanna Gajda, who has played with Ursula Dudziak, Kazimierz Jonkisz and Judy Bady among others. This isn’t the kind of “bounce” tune one expects, but a simmering modern blues piece in an E-flat minor mode, taken at a relaxed tempo that allows both Janczarski and Siddik to really cook, along with Gajda, over the powerful yet sympathetic percussion of McCraven. Janczarski’s own Roaring Forties is a little deceiving, for although it does indeed evoke some memories of the original “bop era” it also contains several modern jazz touches, not least of which is a constantly shifting beat that at times feels like Latin and at others like late-1950s hard bop. Indeed, here saxist Janczarski’s solo takes on a harder edge, sans vibrato, much like some of the hard bop players of that era, while Siddik emulates the trumpet sound of that time. This track really swings, and swings hard!

Gajda’s Love Is, taken at a relaxed tempo, has quasi-Latin beat from the very start, played by the ensemble for the first two minutes before the string of solos. Here, Janczarski pursues a fuller, less Coltrane-like sound. He is not especially adventurous harmonically here, choosing instead to play in a more melodic vein. Rather, it is the composer’s piano that actually takes center stage in a solo of remarkable melodic and harmonic variety. What a wonderful artist she is! Bassist Kowaleski, too, comes to the fore with one of his finest pizzicato solos, melodic in the best sense of the word, while McCraven keeps a low profile as timekeeper.

Actually, Don’t Push That Button sounds just as boppish, if not more so, than Roaring Forties, with solos that really sizzle from all concerned—including McCraven. The only tuine on this set not written by a group member, Woody Shaw’s United, fits right in with its late-bop feeling in a wonderful arrangement that opens with trumpet and tenor sax playing the odd theme in unison. The group takes it more like a jazz waltz with a loping beat, which works splendidly, and once again leader Janczarski plays with a hard tone à la Sonny Rollins or Coltrane but with his own personal style. And once again Gajda’s piano grabs one’s attention, this time with its powerful, extroverted explorations.

The final number, Traveling West, has almost but not quite a rock beat; once again, it seems reminiscent of late ‘50s-early ‘60s jazz; its catchy tune could almost have been a surprise hit for the old Blue Note label in the Sidewinder vein. Here it is Siddik who dominates the proceedings, playing powerfully and with great authority, although the leader’s tenor is also quite fine. I should add that the acoustics of this recording are simply perfect, placing the quintet in a realistic soundspace without overdoing the reverb.

What a great find this is!

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book: From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed exploraiton of the intersection of classical music and jazz

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