Ken Fowser’s Now Hear This: A Clinic in Postbop Tunesmithing

by delarue

As straight-ahead postbop jazz tunesmithing goes, tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser has few rivals. His compositions are catchy without being dumbed down, and challenging without being self-consciously harsh or awkward. His albums on the Posi-Tone label are refreshingly free of the “OMG, the clock is ticking, rush rush rush to get this in the can’ vibe that plagues so many jazz releases these days. His latest one, Now Hear This – streaming at Posi-Tone Records – bristles with the conversational energy of a live set. It’s Fowser’s most latin-influenced release to date, and one of his best (Little Echo, from 2011, with vibraphonist Behn Gillece is his career benchmark so far). Fowser’s next gig is this Friday, May 5 at 8 PM at the Django, in the basement of the new shi-shi hotel at 2 6th Ave. just north of Canal in SoHo; your best bet is to head for the bar where it’ll only cost you $10 to get in.

A bustling blues riff opens the album’s first cut, the brisk, aptly titled swing shuffle Blast Off.  Fowser prowls amid the lows, a little smoky; trumpeter Josh Bruneau bubbles and then pianist Rick Germanson walks on coals over the hypercaffeinated drive of bassist Paul Gill and drummer Jason Tiemann. Bruneau gets the slam-dunk at the end.

Here and Now has an early 60s Verve latin noir undercurrent: terse, pensive solos from the horns, brooding swing backdrop, workmanlike stairstepping from Germanson. A little later on, The View From Below follows the same pattern: moody, judicious modal melody anchoring an almost frantic swing, Germanson at the center. By contrast, Blues For Mabes has a disarmingly catchy latin go-go bounce: it could be a Dizzy Gillespie tune, lit up with some tasty passing tones from the bandleader, energetic flurries from Bruneau and a similarly fun mashup of gospel, blues and go-go from Germanson.

The pianist opens the jazz waltz Still Standing with a neoromantic majesty before its dancing On Broadway riff kicks in. One and Done, a bossa, is a genial, send-em-home-with-a-smile wee hours number: you can hear the anticipation of the end of the night’s last set, and a drink at the bar (or finally some sleep) in Bruneau and Fowser’s solos, and finally some clenched-teeth levity from Tiemann.

The album’s title track makes a return to almost furtively fast, tiptoe-tapping swing: Germanson’s wry quotes and Bruneau’s volleys of blues are highlights. On one hand, the midtempo swing number Fair to Middlin’ has a troubled undercurrent, notably in Fowser’s moody lines and Gill’s all-too-brief solo, but there’s also a tongue-in-cheek resemblance to a famous Miles Davis tune.

The album’s most expansive and arguably catchiest cut, Transitions opens with some LOL call-and-response between Fowser and Bruneau, then gives everybody in the band a launching pad for good-natured soloing. A Few Blocks Down blends nocturnal bossa nova and nocturnal Afro-Cuban tinges over Germanson’s simmering, tense lefthand attack and Gill’s similarly dancing lines. The album comes full circle with a final upbeat swing shuffle, Ready the Mops, another very possible choice of closing number after a couple of high-voltage sets in a crowded West Village basement amidst the tourists and the diehards. If that’s you, give this a spin.

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