Monday, November 26, 2018

Julian Gerstin Sextet's The Old City

Which city is the "Old City"? If you're hung up on the answer to this question while listening to the Julian Gerstin Sextet's new album, you might be missing the point. That's the first thing I did. I looked at the cover, I checked the liner notes, and I came up empty. The simple truth is that "the Old City" is a state of mind, an "imaginary locale." Percussionist Julian Gerstin wanted the title to reflect a certain state of mind, a distant place where the pace is slower and the history is richer. He's borrowed primarily from Afro-Cuban genres of jazz to create a sound that is both relaxed and filled with exciting rhythms.

Gerstin's sextet also includes clarinet player Anna Patton, horn player Don Anderson, pianist Eugene Uman, bassist Wes Brown and drummer Ben James, and he enlists many guest stars such as violinist Lissa Schneckenburger and guitarist Keith Murphy to broaden the scope of these originals. This sounds like a busy ensemble, heavy on horn and polyrhythms, and you wouldn't be far off with that assessment. But the surprising things about The Old City is the air and the space around all these musicians. Gerstin's arrangements are clean and straightforward, as uncluttered as an empty bus station. This allows the melodies to leap forward and reveal their worldly influences--not only Cuba but Columbia and the Balkans and even Iran.

These exotic tinges are usually introduced by Gerstin himself. He uses percussion instruments from all over the world to play Cuban music, adding another layer of intrigue. That's partially due to the focus on Afro-Cuban traditions, since Gerstin has studies in places such as Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa. He's successful at this blending of influences because he knows them so well, and he knows where they intersect. He also a sanguine drummer, light with his touch, so while you marvel at the speed of his fingers on drum heads, you're leaning forward into the music instead of backwards.

This is a fantastic set, full of the requisite amount of energy needed for Latin and Caribbean jazz. But you'll walk away from The Old City thinking about Gerstin's light touch on percussion. It dances along nearly every second like a charismatic actor who's in every scene of a movie. It's unusual that he's not the lead character but someone working hard in the background to inspire everyone else on stage. His arms must get tired. That said, you never get tired of his presence, and you'll miss him when the record is over and he stops playing.

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