Jacob Duncan: The Busker
Calvin Cycle Collective

Were one to happen upon Jacob Duncan busking on some street in his home town of Louisville, Kentucky, there's little doubt one would be totally captivated by the playing of the alto saxophonist and bandmates double bassist John Goldsby and acoustic guitarist Craig Wagner. As The Busker soundly illustrates, Duncan's no amateur looking for a quick and easy way to line his pockets. On the contrary, he's someone who took up the alto sax at eleven, studied music at the University of North Texas, and began refining his performing skills during a post-graduation stint in Europe playing on street corners and French jazz clubs. Returning stateside, he did sessions and performed at NY's Knitting Factory before his nomadic spirit took him to Argentina, Southeast Asia, and New Zealand capped by an eventual re-settlement in Louisville. Among those with whom the restless troubadour has played and recorded are Aretha Franklin, Norah Jones, the Violent Femmes, Will Oldham, and Rachel Grimes.

Though Duncan reveres figures such as Lester Young, Jan Gabarek, and Lee Konitz, the vibrato-laden tone captured on The Busker calls to mind Joe Lovano and Ben Webster as much as any of those influences. Recorded in Louisville, the album features nine originals inspired by Duncan's experiences playing on the streets of European countries. The richness of his tone and the connectedness of the three is apparent even when the piece is a mere one minute in duration (“Backyard Self Portrait”), and though Duncan's clearly the leader, his partners here and elsewhere show themselves to be distinguished players in their own right. As they repeatedly demonstrate, the beauty of the trio format is how much it allows for both empathetic interaction and individual space. On swinging uptempo tunes such as “Warsaw of Ermou” and “Kentucky Child,” Duncan struts with robust conviction, the saxophonist at certain moments allowing a harsher edge to amplify his full-throated attack. In such cases, Goldsby provides unerring support for both Wagner and the leader whilst also occasionally contributing a confident solo of his own.

It's on the ballads, however, where Duncan and company truly shine, and never more so than during “The Locked Door,” one of those stirring performances that's so breathtaking one stops whatever one's doing to fully absorb the artistry on display. Much like Coltrane on Ballads, the leader enters alone before the others join in, all three deeply engaged in reaping maximum impact from the composition's quietly rapturous melodies. On this album standout, Duncan alternately whispers and supplicates, Goldsby delivers a rather Haden-esque solo, and Wagner contributes a brief yet elegant solo. Ranging between heartfelt ballads and breezy jams, The Busker leaves a strong impression, the superior quality of the playing and the compositions its key selling points.

November 2016