Jacob Shulman’s “Connectedness”

SHULMAN: Opening Up. Ordinary. Boiling. Zenith. Indigo Conjunction. Reflected Off the Water. Viridian Forest & The Night Sky. Nadir. A Crack in the Ice. Long Line / Jacob Shulman, t-sax; Hayoung Lyou, pno; Simón Willson, bs; Avery Logan, dm / Endectomorph Music EMM-12 (order on Bandcamp)

Jacob Shulman, a young saxophonist from Los Angeles who now lives and works in New York, makes his recording debut on this disc due for release on November 14. As he put it in a brief interview:

I come from a diverse background: musically, intellectually, and culturally. Playing jazz saxophone is a return to roots for me, but it’s also a chance to combine everything I’ve learned as a musician and a person and distill it through the filter of in-the-moment playing with my friends.

From the liner notes:

The music on Connectedness – born in Boston, reared in New York, with ancestry in Armenia, Austria and Japan – is both for and about my friends Avery, Hayoung, and Simón. I wrote the music because they are my friends, but they are my friends because of the music.

Judging from what I hear on this CD, the music is more interesting, in large part, than the performance, with Shulman being the major exception. He has a warm tenor sax sound with a nice bite to the tone, and his playing is exceptional for its phrasing. His friends may indeed all be wonderful people, but their talents struck me as limited. They don’t swing, have great technique or much imagination in their playing, but they don’t have to because, as I say, the music is very interesting. Shulman refers to this music as a suite, and that it may be, but I hear a continual development of themes, harmony and rhythm as they group moves from track to track, which in my mind makes the score more of a continuous development than a series of different pieces, which is technically what a suite is.

Moreover, I’m really not sure how much of the music is improvised. Probably Lyou’s piano solo in Boiling, which uses standard jazz licks but mixes them up in a nice soufflé, also possibly Shulman’s solo in this same track. Ironically, Boiling, being the most jazz-like and least multi-cultural piece in the set, swings the most, yet even here one hears the composer’s mind at work, halting the forward progression and playing some “outside” jazz at one point.

We reach a point of relaxation in Zenith, a very slow piece that just floats across the mind and sounds very Eastern indeed—at least until the 2:06 mark, when it suddenly shifts to a nice, bright 4—but then it slows down again, the music morphs, and we’re almost in another sound world until 3:05 when it picks up again. Lyou’s piano is much less interesting here than in Boiling, and he doesn’t swing, but what he plays fits into the overall structure pretty well and that’s what counts.

One of the most fascinating things about Shulman’s suite is that the Armenian, Austrian and Japanese influences are fused together in each piece; you can’t say with real certainty that piece A sounds Armenian, B sounds Japanese and C Austrian, or vice-versa, and this is a tribute to Shulman’s outstanding grasp of musical form. Although he alludes to Eastern European and Asian harmonies, no one piece is entirely in an Eastern or Asian mode. The music is a true melting-pot, and of course the unmentioned fourth influence is American in jazz itself, an art form that only has some parallels in the music of other cultures but not in the same sense. At times, as in Reflected Off the Water, one can say yes, I hear the strong Japanese influence here, but Shulman is constantly walking an artistic tightrope between the various cultures. Reflected may indeed be strongly Japanese-influenced, but in the end it’s still a jazz piece and an extremely interesting one at that.

By the mid-point in this suite, Shulman’s music has become relatively quiet, inward and reflective, much like the way it started but even more so. Yes, I wish that the pianist used here was more imaginative at times—I can just imagine what Toshiko Akiyoshi or Satoko Fujii could have done with this music—but as I say, it suffices. In Nadir, we reach a point at about 1:15 in where Shulman somehow, miraculously, makes his quartet sound like a full orchestra—don’t ask me how he did it, but he does.

In toto, this is a fascinating work that completely engrossed me despite the weaknesses of the supporting musicians. I’m sure that Jacob Shulman will be mad at me for saying that, but I can only give you my own personal reaction based on 60 years of listening to music. I do not pretend to speak for anyone else’s reactions.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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