Ezra Weiss Sextet: Before You Know It [Live in Portland]
Though it exhibits broad stylsitic range, the music performed by the Ezra Weiss Sextet on the leader's first foray into live recording locates itself squarely within the jazz tradition. Yet whatever it might lack in experimental bravado, Before You Know It more than makes up for it in the passion the group brings to the set, which includes Weiss originals, a breezy cover of the Gershwin classic “A Foggy Day,” and an inspired take on “Alabama,” composed by John Coltrane after the 1963 bombing of the Birmingham church in which four girls were killed. On a seventy-eight-minute live recording that plays very much like a representative club set, Weiss on piano is joined by trumpeter Farnell Newton, alto and tenor saxophonists John Nastos and Devin Phillips, bassist Jon Shaw, and drummer Christopher Brown.
Weiss, who teaches at Portland State University and was honoured as a Rising Star Arranger in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics Polls, is a man of many talents. Though he's a gifted if somewhat self-effacing pianist, it's as a composer and arranger that he makes the strongest impression on this live release, his seventh album as a leader. A case in point, the sextet's eleven-minute take on “A Foggy Day” highlights his arranging skills in the way he alternates between ensemble and solo episodes and ensures that the material unfolds with a natural ease. Played at a brisk clip, Gershwin's tune undergoes a serious revamp, never more so than when the soloists approach their improvisations in free-wheeling, explorative manner.
On Before You Know It, the front-line players and rhythm section adopt fundamentally different roles, with the trumpet and sax players handling the majority of the solos and the others providing solid support. Newton, Nastos, and Phillips impress not only as soloists but as unison players, and in the repeated instances when the horn and saxes collectively voice a theme, the resultant blend is lush and warm. Nowhere is that more evident than on “Jessie's Song,” a romantic reverie Weiss composed for his wife. Another plus is the well-considered sequencing of the set-list, which sees various flavours—R'n'B, soul, blues, and gospel—worked into the set. While jazz is obviously a huge part of its DNA, the rollicking “The Five A.M. Strut,” to cite one example, shows itself over its fifteen-minute run to be equally rooted in funk and R'n'B.
Driven by Brown's sensitive accompaniment and spiked by a typically bold solo by Newton and a singing turn by altoist Nastos, the bluesy opener, “Winter Machine,” swings with an ease and assurance that establishes a promising tone for the recording. There's a swagger to the playing on “The Crusher,” whose abrupt, Mingus-like shifts in tempo are executed with aplomb, after which the pace cools for “Don't Need No Ticket” (the title taken from a Curtis Mayfield lyric), an unabashedly soulful ballad given a heartfelt reading by the band. And not only does it include a delicately fashioned intro by Weiss, it grants Shaw a rare solo turn, too. In dedicating “Alabama” to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting, Weiss brings Coltrane's piece into a modern framework whilst retaining the firm signature of his quartet's sound and the dramatic tone of the composition. Seemingly channeling the tenor giant's spirit, Phillips steps up to deliver the recording's most fiery moment in his extended solo, while in their own way Weiss and Brown re-awaken memories of McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones. Arriving as it does after such an intense piece, the soulful ballad “Before You Know It” proves to be an ideal set-closer.As mentioned, Weiss often cedes the solo spotlight to his horn and sax players. That also means, however, that those moments when he does solo—during “A Foggy Day” and “The Five A.M. Strut,” for example—stand out all the more for occurring infrequently. Admittedly, Before You Know It doesn't break new stylistic ground, but that's clearly not what Weiss is aiming for on the release. What argues strongly in its favour is the stellar level of musicianship, as well as the genuine feeling and affection with which the album's quality material is executed.