Eric Wyatt Looks to the Sky in New Release

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LOOK TO THE SKY / B. GONZALEZ: E-Brother. Starting Point. WYATT: Look to the Sky-Sister Carol. Jolley Charlie.+ A Psalm for Phennie. RODGERS-HAMMERSTEIN: My Favorite Things.* HANCOCK: One Finger Snap.+ SANTAMARIA: Afro Blue.+ GROSS: Tenderly / Eric Wyatt, t-sax/a-sax/s-sax/*voc; Keyon Harrold, tpt; Benito Gonzalez, pn; Eric Wheeler, bs; Shinnosuke Takahashi, +Kyle Pool, dm; *Andrea Miller, voc / Whaling City Sound WCS104

The notes for this release state that this album is a reflection of Eric Wyatt’s life. His father, Charles Jolley Wyatt, was himself a tenor saxophonist and a friend of Sonny Rollins who, early in Eric’s career, dubbed him “The Godson of Sonny Rollins.” He introduced his son not only to Rollins’ playing but also that of Charlie Parker. A family friend, Arthur Rhames, introduced Eric to the music of John Coltrane, and ever since he has felt that he is “wearing two hats,” with one foot in Newk (Rollins) and one in Trane. Both his father and Rhames died in 1989.

The album starts out with E-Brother, one of two tunes by pianist Benito Gonzalez. This is a funky jazz piece with a bit of an Afro-Latin beat to it, and Wyatt’s first entrance is impressive. He seems to be channeling Trane here, but Trane in his earlier, more swinging days. Keyon Harrold takes a fine trumpet solo, then it’s Gonzalez’ turn, and he plays some very pretty fast figures before the whole band returns for the ride-out. On Look to the Sky-Sister Carol, which starts out as a 6/8 jazz waltz, Wyatt switches to alto, but politely defers to Harrold as the first soloist up. Harrold plays relatively sparsely, using the relaxation of his improv to rhythmically launch his trumpet. He does not have a big tone but is a very good and imaginative improviser. Then Wyatt enters, and he completely changes the sonic landscape, playing alto with the kind of “flat” tone associated with both Rollins and Coltrane (but not with Bird). Gonzales’ solo is right up there with Wyatt’s, exploring the changes with dazzling runs and fills in the first chorus, a bit sparser in the second. Then, surprise surprise, Wyatt returns but this time on soprano, and in the ride-out both he and Harrold are quite busy interacting with and complementing each other. This is wonderful jazz!

Considering his admitted debt to Trane, it stands to reason that Wyatt would throw in a cover of his classic My Favorite Things. He is flying high in the extended intro before we hear the familiar tune, and if I may inject a personal observation, he does a great Trane imitation. Let’s face it, Trane worked this song so long and so thoroughly that doing a cover version can only be a good tribute (which it is) and not a new vision of it. Gonzalez, however, is quite good here, and Wyatt and Andrea Miller surprisingly sing the lyrics, something neither Trane nor one of his bandmates ever did.

Wyatt shows us his remarkably fine Rollins side in the tribute to his father, Jolley Charlie. This is a straightahead swinger, with bassist Wheeler and drummer Kyle Pool feeding him beautifully. Interestingly, when Gonzalez comes in the rest of the band falls away, leaving him to play a cappella, and he sustains the rhythm and tempo perfectly through a series of double-time runs, feeding himself chords with the left hand à la Bud Powell. This solo becomes quite well developed and convoluted as it goes along, becoming a separate composition in itself. A drum roll press beings the rhythm section to attention behind him. Upon Wyatt’s return, he surprisingly plays only a few bars, letting Gonzalez continue to dominate the proceedings. I think that he, too, appreciated what the pianist did here. A little corny lick from the saxist, evoking laughter from me, ends it.

A Psalm for Phennie is a tribute to his mother, a fairly slowish, serious melody built around a B-flat minor drone (with chord changes in the middle section). All three soloists (Wyatt, Harrold and Gonzalez) are a bit more pensive in this one, although the latter returns to his rapid-triplet form later on in his turn. Herbie Hancock’s One Finger Snap moves at a rapid bop pace, the band fleetly skimming through the tune with Pool again replacing Takahashi on drums. Wyatt plays both tenor (the opening statement) and soprano (the solo) here, and following his first soprano solo Harrold is just wonderful in the way he pushes through the tune. Gonzalez has a short say, then Wyatt returns, playing quite blistering piano. Pool’s drum solo is well paced and interesting.

Hugo Santamaria’s Afro Blue comes next, another fairly uptempo hard bop classic, played to the hilt by Wyatt (on tenor) and the band. Starting Point also cooks pretty hard, with everyone quite hot in their solo turns, but particularly Wheeler on bass.

The album wraps up with Tenderly, played on tenor by Wyatt, and though he does his best to keep within the parameters of a ballad it’s evident that he, like other jazz saxists, has a hard time staying in that mode without going double-time to liven things up. Nonetheless, it’s a nice finish to an excellent album.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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