Eric Wyatt – Look to the Sky – Whaling City Sound

Masterful work from a saxophonist deserving of wider recognition.

Eric Wyatt – Look to the Sky [TrackList follows] – Whaling City Sound WCS 104 (distr. by Naxos), 61:48 [10/27/17] ****:

(Eric Wyatt – tenor, alto and soprano saxophone; vocals (track 3); Benito Gonzalez – piano; Keyon Harrold – trumpet; Eric Wheeler – bass; Shinnosuke Takahashi – drums; Kyle Poole – drums (tracks 4-6); Andrea Miller – vocals (track 3))

Family influence filters throughout saxophonist Eric Wyatt’s sixth album, and first for the Whaling City Sound label. The hour-long Look to the Sky is dedicated to Wyatt’s mother and father, who helped shape his attitude toward music: his father Charles passed away in 1989 and his mother Phennie more recently. Wyatt’s tone and style was also influenced by close family friend Sonny Rollins. In fact, Wyatt is considered Rollin’s godson. Wyatt titled his 1997 debut God Son (the title also nods to Wyatt’s religious faith). Spirituality is also an element of Look to the Sky: the title refers to looking to the heavens when Wyatt thinks of his parents. Spirituality is also a subject or theme in a few of the tunes.

Wyatt has a winning quintet which plays on the nine tracks. Longtime friend and musical partner Benito Gonzalez is on piano (he’s probably best known for his seven-year stint with Kenny Garrett); Keyon Harrold is on trumpet (he dubbed the trumpet for Don Cheadle in the 2015 Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead); Eric Wheeler is on bass (he’s performed with many notable jazz artists such as Benny Golson, Curtis Fuller, Delfeayo Marsalis, Russell Malone and more); and Shinnosuke Takahashi is on drums (he has worked with Eric Person, Don Friedman and Jon Davis and been in Wyatt’s band since 2011). Drummer Kyle Poole is on the trap set on three pieces (he’s shared stages with George Cables, Jeremy Pelt and more) and vocalist Andrea Miller guests on one cut. Wyatt composed three tunes; Gonzalez penned two; and the others are covers.

Wyatt and his band open with Gonzalez’ upbeat, post-bop number “E-Brother,” which Gonzalez wrote in admiration to Wyatt’s mother. Wyatt and Harrold contribute punchy sax and trumpet while Gonzalez, Wheeler and Takahashi provide a flowing and top-notch rhythmic support. After Wyatt and Harrold solo, Gonzalez showcases his proficiency on the keys. Gonzalez’ other composition comes near the CD’s close, the equally fast-paced “Starting Point,” which uses a convincing call-and-response aspect like gospel music. During the seven-minute “Starting Point” Takahashi supplies an insistent groove which keeps everyone on their toes. During a restrained section, Wheeler presents a wonderful bass solo which proves he’s going to become better known in the future.

Wyatt’s material is the highlight of the album. The 8:31 “Look to the Sky-Sister Carol” alludes to the loss of Wyatt’s mother. When Wyatt and his sister Carol speak of their parent’s whereabouts, they use the term, “We must look to the sky.” The track is multi-tiered. It begins in 6/8 jazz waltz time; Wyatt utilizes a brighter tone on alto sax as he sets up the main motif; Harrold takes the first solo in an easing gait; then Wyatt comes in with a sax tone which recalls a bit of Coltrane (one of Wyatt’s avowed influences) and his mentor Rollins. There are several memorable changes; and near the end Wyatt switches to soprano sax to give a warmer sheen to the tune’s final stretch. The jumping and swinging “Jolley Charlie” is Wyatt’s homage to his father. Wyatt states, “That’s my Dad’s tune. It just feels like my Dad.” Poole is in the drum seat. “Jolley Charlie” is satiated with joviality, jocularity and joyfulness: a perfect vehicle for illustrating the elder Wyatt’s personality. Gonzalez offers an extended solo in the midsection; and the arrangement has an interesting trio/quartet configuration. At the start, its drums, bass and sax. After Gonzalez’ improvisation, its piano, bass and drums. And then it’s a full quartet for the finale. That’s followed by the requiem-esque “A Psalm for Phennie.” Wyatt explains for days after his mother’s passing he couldn’t pick up his sax, but when he did, “This was the first song that came out of my horn.” The meditative intro and some of the passages have a distinct Coltrane-like movement, not unexpected given Coltrane’s stature in Wyatt’s early musical development.

Anyone who knows Coltrane won’t be surprised to hear Wyatt’s nearly eight-minute translation of  “My Favorite Things,” the Rodgers/Hammerstein hit which became a Coltrane signature tune. Wyatt masterfully shifts through his different saxes, while Harrold sits out on this piece. “My Favorite Things” includes Wyatt’s debut vocals (he’s not much of a singer, but he gets nice support from Miller, who is a fine singer). The meat of this number, though, isn’t the vocals but the group’s accomplished and heated run through this familiar work, full of Coltrane’s spirit and jubilation. Two other noteworthy covers are Herbie Hancock’s “One Finger Snap” and Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.” The bop cut “One Finger Snap” (from Hancock’s 1964 LP, Empyrean Isles) was specifically composed with only a short melody, then a chord progression without a written melody which went right to improvisation. Wyatt follows suit: after the unison melodic intro, it’s solo, more solo, and more solo. Poole is on drums and his high-powered solo is one which should be heard by all drum fans. “Afro Blue” has become a jazz standard and Coltrane enthusiast’s will also recognize Coltrane did “Afro Blue” in 1963 with an extensive cross-rhythm technique. Wyatt perceptibly takes his cue from Coltrane for this eight-minute adaptation, which includes some phenomenal Wyatt sax improvising. Gonzalez sustains the tune’s harmonic sophistication and intricacy when he does some excellent soloing. Wyatt concludes with the wistful standard “Tenderly,” done by numerous jazz vocalists and instrumentalists. Here, Wyatt trims “Tenderly” down to a piano/sax duet with Gonzalez and the result is a beautiful way to end a brilliant album.

TrackList: 
E-Brother
Look to the Sky-Sister Carol
My Favorite Things
Jolley Charlie
A Psalm for Phennie
One Finger Snap
Afro Blue
Starting Point
Tenderly

—Doug Simpson

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