Leo Sherman – Tonewheel – [TrackList follows] – Outside in Music, 56:01 [10/25/19] ****:
Paul Jones – tenor saxophone; Alex Goodman – guitar; Ben Winkelman – piano; Leo Sherman – bass, producer; Dan Pugach – drums
Bassist Leo Sherman’s debut album—the 56-minute, nine-tune Tonewheel—is about struggle and reaching for freedom. There are compositions inspired by individual exertions, racism, religious intolerance, political topics, life as an immigrant and more. Sherman reveals in his brief liner notes that “Tonewheel is a collection of observations and experiences of immigrating to and growing up in the U.S. Each song is based on a story.” These instrumental narratives are performed by Sherman’s quintet: tenor saxophonist Paul Jones (a NYC-based music teacher who has played with soul singer Eli “Paperboy” Reed; and regularly collaborates with other NYC jazz artists); guitarist Alex Goodman (a Canadian who now resides in NYC; he has worked with John Patitucci, Maria Schneider, Dan Tepfer and others); pianist Ben Winkelman (an Australian who moved to NYC to broaden his musical education; his latest album was issued in 2019); and drummer Dan Pugach (an Israeli now a member of the NYC jazz community; he has his own group). Sherman was born in Russia; left at an early age; and grew up in a rough section of Baltimore.
The international lineup in Sherman’s quintet provides an emotional and psychological edge to his eight originals (plus one cover). The opener, “In Flight,” can be interpreted in several ways, including Sherman’s escape with his family from Soviet Russia in the late 1980s, where Sherman faced antisemitism as well as nearly fatal health problems. “In Flight” has a modern jazz quality highlighted by Goodman’s flowing guitar lines; Sherman and Pugach’s rhythmic communication; and a solid Jones solo. The immersive ballad “Looking Back Again”—which includes wonderful Winkleman and Sherman improvisations—has a nocturnal and nostalgic sensibility, the soundtrack for someone glancing at the past and reflecting on what was, what might have been and what has become the present. There’s also a late-night memorialization to the sublime ballad “Nocturne,” where the band is pared down to piano, drums and bass and the arrangement has a semi-classical music texture. Pugach shines with his flourished fills and percussive nuances. The other piano trio piece, “Holdover,” is more positive and upbeat, with a quick pace and vibrant energy.
Sherman’s relationship to a wider, large-scale viewpoint is heard on other numbers. The most important is Victor Jara’s declarative “Aquí Me Quedo (Spanish: “Here I Stay”), which came out after the Chilean political activist was tortured and killed during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. This tension-tinted tune includes an emotive Jones solo: his unrestrained nearly free-jazz extrapolation is arresting. Sherman says Jones has “a great sense of pulse and also a really interesting harmonic approach,” and further states, “He has a strong and unique way of weaving through strange progressions, while also feeling the pulse really strongly.” Sherman explains, “Jara’s story has relevance today in light of what we’re going through,” and additionally discloses, “The piece is basically the story of his last moments. Not everyone I know could play the role of Jara, and evoke that kind of anguish and terror, the way Paul does in that solo. He really taps into it.” Sherman’s straightforward, post-bop “Spice Planet” alludes to Frank Herbert’s SF Dune book series, which is a chronicle of rebellion and revolution. Sherman’s Jewish background is obliquely referenced for his buoyant character sketch, “Chagall,” a tribute to the man described as “the quintessential Jewish artist of the twentieth century.” While it may not be intentional, “Chagall” has a stepped-up arrangement which echoes Chagall’s sudden and harrowing 1941 escape from Nazi-occupied France. Sherman’s time spent surmounting difficulties, including family disagreement to his desire to be a musician, is a significant element which permeates throughout Tonewheel. Sherman clarifies, “Growing up where I did in Baltimore, growing up with pretty much nothing, you start to notice how other people around you are going through the same thing, struggling and pulling themselves up, again and again. I wanted Tonewheel on some level to be about that.”
Looking Back Again
Aquí Me Quedo
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