Oxman’s East of the Village from East of the Rockies

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EAST OF THE VILLAGE / STYNE: Bye Bye Baby. MOBLEY: East of the Village. VAN HEUSEN-BURKE: Deep in a Dream. HANLEY (arr. OXMAN): Breeze (Blow My Baby Back to Me). REID: A Vaunt Guard. AHLERT-TURK: Walkin’ My Baby Back Home. JENKINS: The Shorter Route. BERNSTEIN: Lucky to Be Me. OXMAN: Brothers, Michel and Jean-Marc. G. & I. GERSHWIN: I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck / Keith Oxman, t-sax; Jeff Jenkins, Hammond B3 org; Todd Reid, dm / Capri Records (no number)

Keith Oxman’s trio harks back to the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when tenor sax-with-organ combos mushroomed around the country. I was never a huge fan of the genre myself, but I have to admit that Oxman’s Denver-based group plays with a tremendous amount of brio. In addition, both he and Hammond B3 player Jeff Jenkins are highly imaginative soloists.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it’s Jenkins’ amazingly buoyant organ playing that really makes this trio. He keeps the tone light, never getting bogged down in the kind of heavy, thick organ sound that afflicted so many such groups in the old days. Moreover, his solos fairly burst with fresh and original ideas; he isn’t afraid to play a bit “outside” the changes, and he often steals the show from the leader, particularly in the opening number, Jule Styne’s Bye Bye Baby. Oxman has a fine tone and swings hard, but by and large he’s feeding off Jenkins, not the other way around.

Oxman is heard to good advantage, however, in Hank Mobley’s hard-bop tune East of the Village, playing double-time runs with a nice hard tone reminiscent of Sonny Stitt. I was not surprised to learn that Jenkins normally plays piano, as he takes a very pianistic approach to the organ. Perhaps ironically, however, I think that his playing here on the organ actually makes his improvisations sound more dramatic. There’s a certain explosive quality in his playing that just commands your attention every time he solos. Todd Reid is a very capable drummer, more fluid and flexible in rhythm than one normally hears in trios like this.

Perhaps because this is a pretty bouncy trio, they lack the usual morose quality that so many such groups bring to ballads. The late jazz critic Ralph Berton used to tell me he detested hearing ballads because they were also so sappy. Not so here. Oxman’s playing in Jimmy van Heusen’s Deep in a Dream is warm but not sappy. He maintains a firmness of tone even at a slower tempo, and in fact he seems particularly inspired in his double-time runs during his first extended solo. Interestingly, Jenkins’ solo on this tune is not merely understated but extremely quiet, almost a bit eerie in feeling.

Hanley’s Breeze has a nice, jaunty feel about it that makes you smile. By this point I started to realize that double-time runs are where the saxist throws in some of his best ideas, though he does temper them here with some nice bent blues notes. On the other hand, Reid’s original A Vaunt Guard is the most original piece played here, starting out with an ominous, disjointed-sounding series of minor-key licks before moving into an equally edgy, fragmented tenor solo by Oxman. There’s a certain Bird-like quality to the music here, though played on tenor instead of alto; a very dramatic tune, with the composer continually pushing things from the drum kit. Oxman really pushes himself here, and for once Jenkins stays silent until his own solo, typically fresh and amazing in construction while retaining the ominous quality of the piece.

Walkin’ My Baby Back Home is one of only two really well-known songs on this set, but I wonder how many people realize that this pre-jazz-era oldie might never have been a jazz standard if it hadn’t been for Nat “King” Cole’s superb recording of it. As A Vaunt Guard wa dense, busy and dark-sounding, Walkin’ My Baby is light as a feather, uncluttered and light. The Shorter Route also takes a light weight approach; this is the kind of jazz that one can listen to while conversing with friends in a club. Possibly the least interesting tune in this set, Leonard Bernstein’s Lucky to Be Me just sort of meanders along, although Oxman’s solo is superb, completely restructuring the banal melody to make something interesting out of it. Here, Jenkins is in an unusual mood, being both pensive and playful. Oxman’s original, Brothers, Michael and Jean-Marc, is another one of those peppy tunes with conventional changes that comes to life during the improvised solos. Jenkins is again terrific here, moving from a quasi-Latin feel to wonderfully broken-rhythm licks and inventive triplet and sixteenth-note runs.

The closer is another standard, George Gershwin’s I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck. Oxman apparently thinks this tune isn’t very well known, but I’m not so sure about that; it’s been one of my favorite Gershwin tunes since I was 16 years old ( a long time ago). Jenkins’ organ jumps and skips its way through some incredible ideas, Oxman following with some nice swingy phrases. Thus we close out this essentially jaunty set by the Keith Oxman Trio, a fine ride with some delightful surprises along the way.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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