There’s crushing irony in that saxophonist Michael Thomas‘ latest album, Natural Habitat – streaming at Sunnyside Records – is a shout-out to New York at a time when this city has never been more hostile to musicians. There’s even greater irony in that Thomas could leave the city he always gravitated toward, return to his native Florida and enjoy a busy career there. For the moment, he’s toughing it out here, and is playing one of Giant Step Arts‘ series of outdoor concerts on the west side of Central Park on April 25 at around 1 PM with a quartet featuring Michael Rodriguez on trumpet, Edward Perez on bass and Johnathan Blake on drums. Go in through the 81st St. entrance, follow the noise and walk uphill about a block north.
Blake also serves as the irrepressible force that propels this tuneful and ambitious album, alongside pianist Julian Shore and bassist Hans Glawischnig. Thomas opens it with Float, a vehicle for Shore’s rippling lyricism, assembled around a spiraling, syncopated, warmly pastoral sax theme.. The bandleader cuts loose with a long, triumphant solo as the backdrop grows more kinetic but also enigmatic.
He switches to bass clarinet to open the catchy jazz waltz Different Time with a sagely cheery solo, Glawischnig dancing between Shore’s spare chords. The band follow the goodnaturedly funky sway of First with the album’s similarly energetic, hard-swinging retro 60s title track and its slyly circling Blake solo.
Harbor, a pensive but anthemic ballad, takes its title from Boston Harbor, where Thomas was inspired to come up with the finishing touches. He saves his longest, optimistically crescendoing solo for Fourth, the rest of the band returning to a swaying, funk-tinged groove.
The album’s most dynamic number is Demise, at first built around a brooding, circling Shore riff, Thomas back on bass clarinet. Shore then switches to bubbly Rhodes for a cloudbusting solo as Blake gets more and more memorably restless.
Shore anchors No Words with his increasingly frenetic clusters, Thomas taking charge of bringing the sunlight in this time. The album winds up with Two Cities – a joint homage to Boston, where Thomas went to school, and New York as well, the contrast between the two reflected in the unsettled rhythm. Thomas picks this as the place to cut loose with his fieriest sax solo here as Blake pounces and prowls. If this is an accurate interpretation, Thomas sees Boston as having younger cred, while Gotham lives up to its vaunted sophistication. In actuality, neither New York nor Massachusetts are free states at the moment, and neither has much of a musical culture outside of speakeasies and clandestine venues…and public parks.