Monday, July 02, 2018

CD Review: Sharel Cassity & Elektra - Evolve



Sharel Cassity & Elektra
Evolve
(Relsha Music) www.sharelcassity.com

Saxophonist Sharel Cassity's roots run deep. This was apparent on Relentless, her sophomore release in 2015. Along with a set of straight ahead originals, the alto saxophonist took on Charles Tolliver's low-down "On the Nile." There is a good chance she picked up the tune via Jackie McLean's Jacknife session, which features Tolliver's trumpet and composition. Of course, it's likely that she heard the composer's own version of it on his session for Arista-Freedom.

Regardless, it showed that Cassity was, as the title said, relentless when it comes to soaking up the history of her horn (she also plays soprano saxophone and flute). She had been playing saxophone since she was still in the single-digits and has amassed quite a catalog of appearances, from the ambitious Fat Cat Big Band to Natalie Merchant. In some ways, it's ironic that a well-seasoned player is still on the "Rising Star" list of alto saxophonists in downbeat, but Cassity has made it again this month. (What ever happened to "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition," which at least acknowledged that the deserving players might have been at it longer?)

All this brings us to Evolve, her fourth album as a leader, which came out a few months ago. While at least one Elektra performance featured an all-female lineup, the album includes guitarist Mark Whitfield, drummer Jonathan Barber and - on one track - Freddie Hendrix adding flugelhorn rather than his usual trumpet. But Linda Oh handles bass duties throughout, and Ingrid Jensen plays trumpet and Lucianna Padmore plays drums, respectively on two tracks.

Cassity continues to play like an ambitious soloist and composer on the title track. The electric 7/4 groove has a slipper quality, which she and Jensen bring it to life. The electronics on her alto in the second chorus expand the sound to her lines. At the far end of the album Cassity pushes herself into some wails during "Outlier," closing the set triumphantly.

In between, things are little different. The cover credits don't indicate it, but the second and third songs come from Alicia Keys and Bjork, respectively. Keys' "New Day" features some tight trades between Cassity and trumpeter Marcus Printup. Barber adds some explosive fills that could get a crowd moving, though he would've benefited from more bottom end from the production. But vocalist Christie Dashiell's subdued vocals substitute the intensity of the original for a more a laidback mood that doesn't feel as convincing. Bjork's "All Is Full of Love," with Cassity switching to soprano, becomes more of a smooth jazz number.

"The Have, the Now" really harkens back to the days of CTI Records. Whitfield's slick wah-wah effect and a brief interlude from keyboardist Miki Hayama both evoke the moist sounds of pop fusion of the '70s. "Be the Change" gives Cassity a chance to again show her alto chops, maneuvering gracefully through some time signature turns. But the power is almost lost after a spoken intro of generic New Age-y aphorisms (luckily they're banded in their own track). Sure, we need positive ideas these days, but the fact that we're already listening means we're already on her side. The liner notes, which incorporate all the song titles into the message, also comes off a little cloying.

Since Evolve is a self-release, it's safe to consider the album is built on Cassity's vision and not the result of pressure to assuage a label exec hoping for more airplay (scant as that may be in 2018) or attention from a non-jazz audience. No one can fault her for wanting to move into new territory either, incorporating more stylistic ideas she's picked up along the way, as she did with "On the Nile." Hopefully she can find a balance between the elements that go down easy and the execution that keeps the bite in the music.


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