Antonio Ciacca Quintet with Steve Grossman – Lagos Blues – Motéma MTM-32, 53:18 ***1/2:
(Antonio Ciacca – piano, producer; Kengo Nakamura – bass; Ulysses Owens – drums; Stacy Dillard – tenor saxophone; Steve Grossman – tenor saxophone)
Fate has a way of putting the right people together at the right time. Such is the serendipitous case of pianist Antonio Ciacca and saxophonist Steve Grossman. The German-born, Italian-raised Ciacca attended the Bologna Conservatory and while studying there met and was subsequently mentored by Grossman, who had moved to the area in the 1970s after establishing his reputation as a sax player in the US. Grossman had made a name for himself working with Miles Davis: as a teen he replaced Wayne Shorter and thereafter was heard on record and in concert with Davis during a six-month stint. Grossman was also with Lonnie Liston Smith in 1971 and spent two years (1971-1973) in Elvin Jones’ group, later becoming a solo artist and instructor. One suggestion Grossman gave Ciacca was to go to New York City to soak up the jazz culture in the Big Apple. That geographical change in due time resulted in Ciacca becoming mentored once again by a jazz giant, Wynton Marsalis, and ultimately led to Ciacca’s appointment as Director of Programming for Jazz at Lincoln Center.
On his fifth outing as leader, Lagos Blues, Ciacca adds his friend and former teacher Grossman to create a dual tenor saxophone quintet. Ciacca and Grossman are joined on the 53-minute, seven-track program by tenor sax man Stacy Dillard as well as bassist Kengo Nakamura (who also has led his own projects) and drummer Ulysses Owens (whose credits include backing Kurt Elling).
The bop and post bop music swings mightily throughout and mixes Ciacca and Grossman originals with standards by Ellington and Paul Chambers and the oft-covered "Body and Soul." The ensemble opens with Ciacca’s stimulating, Latinized "Lagos Blues" – inspired by Ciacca’s 2005 visit to the burgeoning Nigerian capital city – which finds the full band playing with singular combustion. The twinned tenor saxophones bring to mind classic pairings such as Coleman Hawkins performing with Ben Webster or Albert Ammons with Sonny Stitt. Putting Dillard and Grossman together has a vitalizing impact, since both artists share a lyrical edge that combines traditional elements with contemporary flavoring.
Two tunes penned by Grossman follow. The hard bop "Take the D Train," so named because it stays in the key of D, is a driving cut that moves along at an agile pace. Grossman initially released this in 2001 on a recording date with Johnny Griffin. That first version was a cohesive, impressive milieu for two saxophones and while this new rendition retains its complementary nature it provides a fresh base for a great Grossman solo that is anything but recycled from his earlier foray on this piece. Owens devises a commanding rhythmic response to the two-horn front line and Ciacca also snags the spotlight for an excellent turn on his keyboard. The group slows things down on Grossman’s bluesy ballad, "Nicoletta," an even older cut that dates to Grossman’s 1993 record, Small Hotel. Nakamura shines during a sturdy bass improvisation and Grossman showcases his warm-hearted tone that echoes Ben Webster’s likeminded approach.
While the whole outfit contributes to Paul Chamber’s mid-’50s, mid-tempo "Whims of Chambers," Nakamura and Ciacca dispense a delicate bass/piano duet. Some may recall that John Coltrane did the sax honors on Chambers original rendering and Art Pepper also recorded this song. Its unfortunate the ambling composition is rarely performed, since it makes for a keen group exhibition and is one of the album’s highlights. The arrangement is filled with joy and playful verve.
Ciacca reveals his harmonic and melodic skills during the uplifting "Nico’s Song," where he practices an old jazz technique: writing a new melody on a pre-existing harmonic progression, in this case a spry perspective of the standard "All the Things You Are." The lovely tune offers absorbing unison lines for Nakamura’s bass and Ciacca’s piano. Grossman and Dillard, meanwhile, respond with a soulful sax precision and Owens brandishes quick-witted rapport on his cymbals.
"Body and Soul" is common fare for all jazz students, which Ciacca acknowledges in his informative liner notes. This is probably the foremost illustration of Grossman and Dillard’s tenor sax teamwork. Ciacca explains that the take is a collage of many different arrangements he learned throughout his career, including those by Coltrane and Hawkins. Ciacca’s distinct accompaniment behind the double saxes furnishes the frequently executed track a limber characteristic.
The undertaking concludes with an Ellington medley, "Reflections in D" intersected with Ellington’s signature song "In a Sentimental Mood." Ciacca turns in a masterful translation of the meditative solo piano portrait "Reflections in D." While Ciacca proves that he has become an Ellington admirer since his arrival in New York City, his interpretation seems just a tad too vigorous and perhaps a lighter restraint might have been an improvement. Nicer still is "In a Sentimental Mood," which is converted into a trio setting with Nakamura and Owens supplying complimentary rhythmic touches and Ciacca achieving some tender keyboard exchanges.
Lagos Blues is a prime introduction to Antonio Ciacca and with Grossman and Dillard onboard with a two-tenor sax lineup, Lagos Blues is a winner. Lagos Blues is a project for any listeners on the outlook for some traditional jazz refreshment.
A note about the recording levels: while the horns, piano and drums are up-front and centered, during a few instances the bass falls too far into the back. It’s a small criticism but is noticeable when it occurs. Otherwise, the engineering, production and mix bring out the best in all the instruments.
1. Lagos Blues
2. Take the D Train
4. Whims of Chambers
5. Nico’s Song
6. Body and Soul
7. Reflections in D/In a Sentimental Mood
— Doug Simpson