Alto saxophonist Carl Bartlett, Jr.’s new album PROMISE! picks up where his 2011 debut album Hopeful left off. Bartlett explores more of his extended technique here, but also his most translucent side. He’s good at finding pianists; Sharp Radway livened that release with every kind of bluesy purism imaginable. Here Yoichi Uzeki handles the 88s with flair and incision. Bartlett and his quartet are playing the album release show this Feb 1 at 7:30 PM at Smalls; cover is $20 and includes a drink.
The album opens with the title track: Barlett flickers his valves and then they’re off into a catchy, rather tender theme that he shifts back and forth, sometimes marionettish, sometimes cheerily waltzing, Uzeki bounding and spiraling out of Bartlett’s smoky curlicues over Marcus McLaurine’s terse bass and Sylvia Cuenca’s playfully pouncing drums.
Likewise, her carefree rims and hardware liven the clave groove of High Pizzazz, an epic containing a tongue-in-cheek, tiptoeing McLaurine solo, an enigmatically sailing one from the bandleader and finally more of those subtle metric shifts that Bartlett goes for throughout the album.
Acidic piano/sax harmonies and a deviously funny joke open Dialed In (Like a Laser), a darkly latin-flavored, dizzyingly swinging romp with Bartlett’s tantalizing flash through a trilling peak and then a handoff to Uzeki, who runs through the raindrops.
Uzeki ushers another waltz, As the Gift Unfolds Before My Eyes into a clearing and then brings in the clouds; Bartlett’s misty lyricism moves to the side and then back from McLaurine’s minimalist moodiness, the piano lingering in what seems to be a sobering carpe-diem atmosphere.
A swinging shout-out to Bartlett’s fam features cheery harmonies with his trumpeter uncle Charles Bartlett, a purist somewhat gruffly choosing his spots, the sax responding with some wry chromatics as the song goes on. Pop Rocks from the bass open Ethereal Heartbeats; tasty sax/piano modalities introduce an almost furtive samba drive that backs away for scamper and then suspense, setting the stage for the bandleader’s most vivid, incisive solo here.
With its sabretoothed, oboe-like sax intro and then its drifts in and out of waltz time, Fidgety Season maintains that gritty mood, Uzeki anchoring the song as Cuenca prowls in the underbrush. The album winds up with the toe-tapping jump blues tinged It’s Been So Grand, with more jousting between the Bartletts; the sax playing both sides in a two-way conversation is irresistibly fun.
Some of this reminds of Kenny Garrett’s 90s work with Kenny Kirkland, an auspicious start. It’’s reason to look forward to more where this comes from. The album hasn’t made it to the usual online spots yet, although there are a handful of tracks up at Bartlett’s music page.