Jane Ira Bloom: Early Americans

Every album release should be taken on its own terms, but it's difficult (for reviewers and listeners alike) to resist hearing a new recording as part of a continuum; if anything it's uncommon for a new release to be heard separate from earlier ones by a given artist. That's especially true in the case of Jane Ira Bloom's Early Americans for two reasons: first, it's naturally broached with its exquisite predecessor Sixteen Sunsets still fresh in mind; and secondly, it pairs the soprano saxophonist with long-time collaborators bassist Mark Helias and drummer Bobby Previte, and thus invites the listener to hear their latest performances in the context of those that came before.

Bloom's sound on the new recording is instantly recognizable, but one detail in particular earmarks it as one distinct from others in her catalogue. Though Early Americans is her sixteenth as a leader (and sixth on her Outline label), it's her first trio album and thus offers more interactive space for the musicians. The energy level is high, and the attack understandably more aggressive than that featured on the ballads-themed Sixteen Sunsets.

Admittedly, Early Americans isn't at quite the same level as Sixteen Sunsets on compositional grounds, and the reason is simple. Though Bloom is an excellent composer, the latter balanced her originals with standards such as “Good Morning Heartache,” “My Ship,” and “I Loves You Porgy,” all of which were given magnificent renderings by Bloom and company. Early Americans, on the other hand, features twelve originals but only one cover, a stirring solo performance of Bernstein and Sondheim's West Side Story classic “Somewhere.” In fact, that closing piece is so melodically powerful, it suggests that the album might have been better had a few more covers appeared in place of originals.

No such qualification applies on playing grounds, however, with all participants distinguishing themselves with inspired performances. “Song Patrol” introduces the fifty-two-minute collection with three minutes of sinuous swing, Bloom's blues-tinged soprano snaking a path across a rollicking bass-and-drums backdrop. “Dangerous Times” shifts to a darker mood, with this time the leader's wilder musings accompanied by arco bowing and percussive colour. The trio ranges across wide terrain, dipping its collective toes into African waters on the rambunctious “Hips & Sticks” (its roil stoked by an especially eruptive Previte), revisiting “Gateway to Progress” (from 1992's Art and Aviation), and veering into freewheeling funk and bop on “Rhyme or Rhythm,” “Singing the Triangle,” and “Cornets of Paradise.” Adding contrast to the recording are solo performances by the leader, specifically “Nearly,” a sensitively wrought tribute to the late English trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, and the aforementioned “Somewhere.”

Showcasing her signature tone throughout, Bloom plays with an agility and spirited swing that finds her in peak form decades removed from her 1980 debut Second Wind and its auspicious follow-up Mighty Lights, which two years later saw the young saxophonist joined by Fred Hersch, Charlie Haden, and Ed Blackwell.

August 2016