Ezra Weiss Sextet – Before You Know It (Live in Portland) – Roark Records, 77:10 ****:
(Ezra Weiss – piano; Farnell Newton – trumpet; John Nastos – alto sax; Devin Phillips – tenor sax; Jon Shaw – bass; Christopher Brown – drums)
We’ve known for awhile that Ezra Weiss is an outstanding composer and arranger. The Rob Scheps Big Band (reviewed here) in their CD, Our Path to this Moment, did a dynamite job two years ago interpreting Weiss’ compositions. Weiss has had his own group of Portland stalwarts for some time, and it always is a pleasure catching them live. The rest of the country now has the opportunity to experience the excitement of this hot group. Recorded at Ivories Jazz Lounge in late 2013, Ezra’s sextet, from the opening number, “Winter Machine” all the way to the closer, “Before You Know It” is locked into a hot groove for over an hour of primarily hard bop originals. It’s Ezra’s first live recording, and the acoustics are spot on for validating the sextet’s strengths as individuals, as well as Weiss’ inspiring melodies.
The vibe is reminiscent of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and arrangements both highlight the front line horns, as well as Ezra’s sparkling piano, and a tight rhythm section. The recording is well-mixed, as you get the trumpet/sax blend upfront, yet the bass and drums are not lost when the heat is turned up. “Winter Machine” won the 2006 ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award, and sets the mood for the high energy the group elicits. “The Crusher” follows and Farnell Newton blows brashly, while Weiss comps ably.
“Don’t Need No Ticket” is a ballad you’ll remember for both its lushness and soulful sax lead. The Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day” gets a fresh treatment that demonstrates Ezra’s imaginative genius for writing to the band’s strengths. “Jessie’s Song,” written for Ez’s wife is short and sweet and the ensemble playing is striking for its beauty.
“The Five A.M. Strut,” at over fifteen minutes, merges funk with “Nawlins” fearlessness in a brash don’t take any prisoners manner. Farnell Newton leads the charge on trumpet. John Coltrane’s “Alabama” was chosen by Weiss to dedicate to the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings, as Coltrane wrote the composition after the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in which four young girls were killed. Devin Phillips’ tenor sax solo digs into the outrage that both events elicit four decades apart.
With tension released, it’s back to some satisfying soul jazz (a la Jazz Crusaders) with “Before You Know It.” It’s funkiness leaves the listener with a sweet after taste that can only be satisfied with a future CD from this Northwest aggregation. It also shows that the Big Apple does not have a monopoly on resident hot jazz talent…
TrackList: Winter Machine, The Crusher, Don’t Need No Ticket, A Foggy Day, Jessie’s Song, The Five A.M. Strut, Alabama, EZ Introduces the Band, Before You Know It