Great Wit, Surprises, and Outside-the-Box Instrumentation on Baritone Sax Titan Dave Sewelson’s Latest Album
As far as penchant for storytelling, economy of notes and sense of humor are concerned, Dave Sewelson is unsurpassed among baritone saxophonists. It wouldn’t be overhype to count him as one of the greatest and certainly most distinctive voices on that instrument in free jazz. This calmly sagacious elder statesman with a perpetual twinkle in his eye and his reed has put out a ton of albums over the years. It’s a pleasure to report that his latest, The Gate – streaming at Bandcamp – with William Parker on bass and flutes, and Steve Hirsh on drums, is one of his most delightful and energetic. Imagine the jazz band in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, but with a wink instead of a shriek, and you get this.
Sewelson’s next gig is in the middle of an auspicious night of improvisation on Dec 13 at Downtown Music Gallery that starts at 6:30 PM with guitarist Ben Tyree with drummer Sameer Gupta, followed by Abacoa with bassist Kenneth Jimenez, Hery Paz on sax and Willy Rodriguez on drums. Then at 8:30 Sewelson plays with the the Mahakala trio with Hirsch and saxophonist Chad Fowler. At 9:30 noir-inspired low-register reedman Ben Goldberg headlines with a trio.
This a long record, yet it testifies to how interesting improvisation can be when good listeners are creating it. Sewelson is full of surprises starting with a rare appearance on bass in What’s Left, over sixteen minutes of jagged overtones and drony bowing, puffing fujara flute from Parker and a slightly restrained ice-storm attack from Hirsch. Parker’s dexterous, biting solo on the gralla – a Catalan reed oboe – may also come as a surprise, as does Sewelson’s entry on his usual axe, and the duel that ensues.
The 23-minute title track opens with a ridiculous Sewelson joke and a little devious response from Parker as Hirsch edges them toward a slow sway. The bassist pulls toward swing, Sewelson guffly punching and working tireless variations on a simple chromatic riff as Hirsch spins the perimeter. After a tiptoeing Parker solo, the smoky variations return along with a steady upward trajectory toward a flashpoint, and more jokes too good to give away: jazz is seldom this hilarious. And Sewelson just won’t quit, right through the ending.
He wafts his way into Where We Left It, Parker adding rustic fujara atmosphere, Parker sticks with the flute as Sewelson takes over on bass to max out the keening overtones in Another Time. In a bit over thirteen minutes, Slipping has rat-a-tats and shimmers from Hirsch, shivers from Parker and tightly controlled squall that Sewelson takes to a muted shriek before flipping the script and playing around with a couple of garrulously riffy themes over a bubbling, floating swing. Once again, the ending is pretty irresistible.
The duet between Parker’s flute and Sewelson’s sax in So Hum reaches toward Asian mysticism over Hirsch’s spare accents. The trio wind up the album with eight minutes of Paths, a study in contrasts between otherworldly fujara and Sewelson’s characteristically down-to-earth, spacious approach as Hirsch mists the space and prowls around. This is one of the most enjoyable free jazz records this blog has come across in the last several years, no joke.