Wednesday, December 19, 2012

CD Review: Scott Boni Trio

Scott Boni Trio

Scott Boni and I go back a few years. Originally from Washington, PA, the alto saxophonist went to the Berklee College of Music (back when it was the "School" of music, I believe) and came back to Pittsburgh around the early '00s. He caught my ear because he could play jazz classics and they sounded like more than just tributes to a golden era. It helps with you have bassist Paul Thompson and drummer Dave Throckmorton driving the rhythm section, but Boni had a lot of invention in his playing as well.

During the early '00s, Pittsburgh was a challenging place for a guy going the acoustic jazz route and we had several phone conversations about it and the state of music journalism in Pittsburgh. He had an appreciation for all manner of music, even more commercial pop stuff and it wouldn't have surprised me if he went in that direction. For awhile he played tenor with the surf-groove instrumental band the New Alcindors, which was a good example of my worlds colliding upon seeing him at the Quiet Storm coffee shop, back when they had bands. Then there was a period where it seemed like he was going to pack his horn away for good.

Luckily that didn't happen. A few years ago, Boni moved back to the Boston area and a few months ago this CD showed up on my doorstep. It's impressive first of all because the sax-bass-drums context can be a fairly bold setting for someone who hasn't totally abandoned playing over changes. Not only does Boni put forth a convincing performance, the set is made up entirely of original pieces, including three reconstituted classical or "contemporary classical" works, in which he's pushing himself and his bandmates to creative heights.

Bassist Mark Zaleski and drummer Mike Connors (any relation to the same-named star of Mannix?) are a malleable rhythm section that gives each piece a distinct personality. On the bright opener "Miss Iowa" Connors lays out at first, eventually joining Zaleski to put a spring in Boni's step. A track later in "For a Friend" they're playing loose and rubato, allowing Boni to contemplate in phrases that unfold slowly and swoop around. Maybe mid-'60s Coltrane would be a touchstone here, but these are Boni's thoughts now. Around 4:30, he uses the lower register as some punctuation in a sharp manner that shows how far his approach has come in recent years.

On the subject of touchstones, the saxophonist has borrowed from Beethoven, Chopin and Glass (Philip, that is) for the pieces "Ludwig," "Nocturne" and "Glass" respectively. "Ludwig" comes from the second movement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, but this is no third stream attempt at swing. Zaleski walks through a beat that Connors constantly fires up with tasteful fills. Boni's tone often has the clarity of a classical which works in the opening minutes when he sticks with long, clean lines but he eventually opens up the melody, later handing it off to Zaleski for a brief but effective solo. Without knowing the source material, or even the source, it's still easy to get caught up in the music.

Philip Glass' music has always struck my ears as the equivalent of little more than hitting the arpeggiator on an '80s keyboard, and "Glass" (based on his third String Quartet) has some of that going on. But on the saxophone, the rapid arpeggios, going up into the upper register and presumably requiring either circular breathing or some fast, carefully placed gasps of oxygen, sounds kind of pretty and more emotional. During the solo section Boni breaks away from the repetition, later sneaking in some fragments of it back in, and it all works.

"Nocturne" might be based on Chopin's #20 in C# Minor, but this no pastoral music either. Not to say that it isn't gentle but Zaleski goes a few steps beyond simple accompaniment here and it gives it a little more spark and helps to color in the texture, without a need for additional players. The piece fades with Boni repeating a riff that starts at the bottom of the horn and ends on a rather Dolphy-esque high note. He plays it faster and faster sounding a little more gruff with each one. If nothing else, this is the signal of a new phase in his career.

As I write this, it feels more like I'm writing liner notes than a review. But I'm a little close to the subject in this case and don't mind getting a little effusive. That's what blogs are for.

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