The Sugar Hill Trio – Drive – Goschart Music 031547 [Distr. by CD Baby], 51:26 (9/12/16) ***1/2:
A sax-led trio with an advanced approach.
The Sugar Hill Trio describes itself as a “modern-day, innovative/avant-garde jazz combo” which is open enough to cover almost anything approximately jazz-like in sound. In fact, their approach to the tradition involves a quite recognizable formula. Starting from the bottom up, the bass (duties split between Leon Boykins and Dylan Shamat) powers the unit with strong walking lines that measure out the changes, veering little from their rhythmic path except to add some scrambling figures or ostinato. This frees the drums to walk across the stream, stirring up all sorts of swirls and sprays of shimmering rhythmic detail. In this case, the drummer, Austin Walker, has a delightfully hyper-kinetic approach to the kit; he certainly seems to be following Sam River’s dictum to “leave nothing out.” The saxophone plays the head, then long solos on the changes, and returns to the head to close out. Skilled jazz musicians can run over changes on such a chart with impressive facility, and this player, Christian Torkewitz, is in the super-skilled class. This approach to jazz requires impressive suite of techniques but does not always hit the mark from a communicative standpoint.
On “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” the tenor pays melody and then launches into a couple of choruses to a roiling rhythm before the bass solos. After a reprise, Torkewitz squalls and hollers on an improvised bridge before finding the bass in a perfect unison. There is drama in the vehemence of the playing and fantastic group cohesion. What follows on the “Drive,” is uptempo be-bop flute playing of commanding fluency. Bass and drums seems to enjoy the exercise. There is nothing particularly avant-garde or innovative about this, but it is very well done. A ballad “You’re My Everything,” follows with a more relaxed tone by the tenor and for once the drums are satisfied to patter along behind.
Elsewhere, the music occasionally drifts or flounders, and I think it has to do with the over-reliance on the head/solo formula. The most gifted improvisers can sometime find something in even a simple melodic sketch that gives them something to puzzle over. One thinks of Sonny Rollins, in “Blue 7,” who discovers a superimposed E major chord in juxtaposition to a B-flat blues. It prompts him into a lengthy scientific inquiry which is humorous, full of surprises, and deeply expressive. In contrast, this tenor doesn’t express much interest in the the bebop-themed “Minority.” It merely provides a vehicle for an exhausting workout on the chord changes. There is great deal of scale-running broken up by some “outside” playing and some well-timed growls and squeals. Two original tunes as well as “Spiral” by John Coltrane also suffer from this single-minded approach to soloing. There is some cleverness on Monk’s ”Ask Me Now” and no lack of inspired involvement from the supporting crew. However, this tireless linearity lacks, to my ears, a penchant for surprise or deviation. There is a nod to Sonny Rollins in carnival-mood on “Like Someone in Love” as the saxophonist works his way through the melody before taking up the scalar implications of the chords.
The final track returns the group to their finest moments of concentration on “Theme For Basie.” The Count would give this group high scores for their swing-ethic. Perhaps the group has found a bigger use for the tune and paradoxically at their most traditional seem the most innovative.
This is a good group. Young tenor players might schedule more wood-shedding time if they aspire to reach the heights of mastery on display here. Drummers will simply love this session. I would predict that these musicians will improve both in reach and grasp and shortly establish their place in the world of modern, innovative, avant (or-not-) garde jazz.
TrackList: Minority; Open Circle; Spiral; Sunbeams The NIght Has A Thousand Eyes; The Drive; You’re my Everything; Handles; Ask Me Now; Like Someone in Love; Theme For Basie;