Thursday, December 20, 2018

Jorge Nila's Tenor Time

It's been some time since I've received anything from Zoho Records, a few months perhaps, but now three or four titles have arrived just in the last week or two. Jorge Nila's Tenor Time doesn't have the usual connections to South America as other releases from this superb label--Nila is from Omaha, Nebraska and has been a musician here since 1965. But guitarist Dave Stryker, another Zoho mainstay, does have a huge role in this tribute to the great tenor saxophonists of the jazz world. Stryker and Nila have known each other since the '70s, ever since they starting playing together in New York City. Stryker's guitar is a huge part of this recording, taking turns with Nila's sax on lead. It's like watching two old friends have the most interesting of discussions about their adventures in the jazz scene over the last few decades.

Tenor Time is obviously devoted to the great tenor sax masters of the past, but it's more specifically about Lester Young and the other performers he influenced along the way such as Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Joe Henderson and Harold Vick. Nila and Stryker have made an interesting choice by choosing an organ quartet as an ensemble--they're joined by Mitch Towne on the B-3 and veteran Dana Murray on the drums. The result is a very relaxed and open set, filled with easy renditions of such classics as "Fried Bananas," "Soul Station", "The Everywhere Calypso" and even Stevie Wonder's "Rocket Love."

This ease is somewhat surprising in a tribute to the tenor sax greats, but it's fitting because Nila's style is anything but brash. His sax has a lingering and introspective sound that concentrates on unfolding each phrase in a very deliberate way. Stryker is sensitive to this--I've heard a number of his records by now and he can shred when he wants, but he's taking his cues from his old friend and doubling the sentiment. Towne's B-3 is also measured and gentle and seems to reinforce the dreaminess of the tunes, especially softer arrangements such as Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes." Murray's style reflects the other three, of course--a sharp enough whack on a drum head might wake everyone up from this dream, so he keeps it reserved as well.

Does this sound like a snooze? It isn't. There's a careful calibration at work here that is not devoid of energy and excitement. It does result in sound that makes your shoulders drop, but the wise approach of these veterans also gives you plenty to chew on, plenty of touches that should remind you of all those great musicians from the past. That's the purpose of a tribute album, of course, but what's masterful about Tenor Time is the way Nila reconstructs everything into such a pleasing and mellifluous whole. This is gentle jazz, but not "light" or "cool." It has deep emotion at its center, and a stunning history lesson about the tenor sax if you're willing to sit at your desk and be still.

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