Considering his past recorded output -- a previous outing as a leader in 1989 entitled Never Too Late and two albums with Spyro Gyra, ‘89’s Point of View and ‘90s Fast Forward, among others -- one would naturally guess that this Jay Azzolina project might be steeped in that same fusiony, pop-jazz vein. You know the deal: solid body Strat tone with a touch of chorus and lot of stinging licks; chops-oriented electric bassist, maybe a five or six-string player, grooving underneath while covering lots of tricky unison lines; heavy- footed drummer pushing the band with rock-tinged forward momentum; a synth or two to enhance the singable, memorable, oft-repeated melodies.
shatters those stereotypical notions within a few bars of this superbly
swinging and highly evocative acoustic jazz offering that also prominently
features the immense talents of tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, bassist
John Patitucci, drummer Adam Nussbaum and pianist Charles Blenzig.
Ironically titled Past Tense, it marks a kind of rebirth for the gifted
guitarist. In this new life, the former fusioneer has been born again as a
“I’ve always been into acoustic music and playing acoustic jazz,” says the guitarist. “For whatever reason, the cards fell in another direction and I ended up playing a lot of fusion in the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. But since the mid ‘90s, I’ve been playing more acoustic jazz, and playing with some great players.”
For the past three years, Azzolina has worked on and off in John Patitucci’s band, a source of some of the inspiration that has led to this recording. “That gig not only introduced me to John but also to the great drummers that he chose for his band,” he says, naming such world-class players as Nussbaum, Bill Stewart, Billy Hart, Billy Drummond, and Terri Lyne Carrington.
It was Patitucci who first encouraged Jay to document his acoustic jazz side. He became so much of an Azzolina booster, in fact, that he ended up co-producing this recording. Jay also credits Nussbaum with bringing the project to Jamey Aebersold, who responded enthusiastically to the highly interactive playing, mature writing and brilliant soloing heard throughout Past Tense.
The tone for this jazzy outing is set from the vibrant opener, “Ben Hur Been Him,” a tongue-in-cheek reference to Jay’s longtime fascination with reincarnation. With Nussbaum traversing the kit with carte blanche throughout this piece, Potter and Azzolina cover the head going into a brilliant upright solo by Patitucci. Jay’s own solo over Patitucci’s insistently walking bass and Nussbaum’s relentless swing factor is flowing and wholly uncliched. The rhythm section heats up underneath Potter’s solo as the tenor star flies with heroic abandon.
If you didn’t get the picture of Jay’s jazzy intent on Past Tense from this bristling opening track, he drives home the point on “Inside Pie’s Eyes,” a loose swinging blues with some of the most spontaneous playing on the record. Patitucci’s time feel is the unerring anchor here that Nussbaum slyly floats around in the agile and intuitive manner of Roy Haynes, commenting on the action from bar to bar. Jay again flaunts warm tones and clean articulation, dipping into a couple of Sco-isms here and there while the angular nature of his linear concept speaks more of Pat Martino. Potter lets loose with another fierce tenor solo here, spurred on by Adam’s heightened, swinging energy on the kit. As the tune heads out, the great drummer lets loose with a dynamic solo of his own.
Switching modes, the quartet eases back on Azzolina’s darkly elegant ballad “Black Waltz,” which is underscored by Adam’s delicate and highly interactive brushwork. The guitarist once again distinguishes himself on “Black Waltz” in his dark hued note choices while Patitucci delivers his most lyrical and expressive solo of the session. The dynamic jumps a few notches halfway through Potter’s extended and rather potent solo, in which he offers more evidence as to why he is one of the most highly regarded tenor saxophonists on the scene today.
Potter also appears on “Rhythms Change,” a fiercely swinging, Michael Brecker-ish sounding vehicle with some decidedly tricky unison lines in the head. As Azzolina puts it, “I wanted to play ‘Rhythm Changes’ but I didn’t want it to be typical, so I added something to the form for blowing."
Pianist Charles Blenzig, who has played alongside Azzolina for the past seven years in singer Michael Frank’s touring band, appears on the surging quartet number “Lil’ Red,” which is fueled by Nussbaum’s urgently interactive approach to the kit. Both he and Jay erupt at the tag against the doubled ostinato by bass and left hand piano. Blenzig also plays on “The Totem,” a delicate ECM-ish ballad which features Azzolina’s wife Jill and Julie Eigenberg doubling the melody on wordless vocals. Jay explains, “Singing very high, light and airy is pretty difficult but they nailed it.”
“Marvelous Marvin” is a sparse, swinging trio number that features Patitucci’s low-end pulse on six-string electric bass. This open-ended guitar-bass-drums vehicle harkens back to Nussbaum’s work with John Scofield and Steve Swallow on Shinola and Out Like A Like, both 1981 albums that had a big impact on Azzolina.
For a complete change of pace, the collection ends on a dramatic note with a stirring rendition of Kurt Weill’s “My Ship.” A gentle steel string acoustic guitar intro segues to Jay’s lush, MIDI orchestra arrangement, performed here by longtime collaborator Jeff Beal. Layered on top are the beautiful, soaring vocals of Jill Azzolina.
“This was all live stuff,” Jay explains. We didn’t have the luxury of overdubbing, and there wasn’t a lot of rehearsing. I think you can hear that sound in the recording, not that it was sloppy or tentative but it had a free, fresh urgency to it, which I really dig. “They’re my favorite jazz guys out there, and it was just a great experience to have them together to play this music.”
It’s been 11 years between albums for Jay Azzolina but in spite of the long wait, the results are highly rewarding for both player and listener. Past Tense is a triumph, the guitarist’s boldest and most invigorating statement to date.
- Bill Milkowski - writer for
Jazz Times Magazine.
We all live in the present, dream
of the future and learn
This music was, of course,
written in the present. It is but a
The wonderful experience of
recording with these