From the first strains of “The World Falls Away,” Detroit’s native son Rodney Whitaker, 46, whisks the listener back to a time when intimate jazz quartets set the stage. But the Mack Avenue recording artist cuts through the old school whimsy with an undercurrent of world-weary understanding, stacked with aplomb, savvy, and an elusive loneliness in his eighth recording as a bandleader. When We Find Ourselves Alone comes out this Tuesday.
A bassist of the highest regard — most recently with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, a six-year gig — Whitaker uses every single element of his quartet to convey his own personalized signature.
He does what he has to do to keep his compositions and arrangements moving, incorporating piano, saxophone, drums, and vocals into that individual signature both suave and cutting edge. The musicians on his When We Find Ourselves Alone have been with Whitaker for the sum total of nearly a quarter-century. The sweeping scat of a vocalist on the winsome “You Go To My Head,” as well as four other tracks, is none other than his daughter Rockelle Fortin. They know Whitaker’s flow, taking his lead with their own distinctive, unrelenting voices — pianist Bruce Barth hangs time like an adrenaline junkie, saxophonist Antonio Hart’s gliding arcs, drummer Greg Hutchinson’s shadow boxing — more than mere shadows, but living embodiments of Whitaker’s soul in every musical thrust and hum.
“Quartet with saxophone is really my voice,” Whitaker acknowledged. “I grew up playing in that context and with vocalists. When you’re from Detroit, you don’t compartmentalize or segregate music. You play funk, you play bebop and you play gospel.”
This is Whitaker at his 21st century best, but comfortable reaching back to the past. He has a firm grasp of the nostalgia from the golden oldies of hyperbolic excess, the ragtime hustles and the gospel truth, yet never wavers from his modern, post-satirical viewpoint. “Jamerson’s Lullaby” — a grandiose yet intensely intimate portrait of staggering grooves in textured, brassy tones alone — provides a perfect sample of this dual-citizenship. It’s a song about a Motown session bassist, as well as the dichotomy of emotions expressed in Whitaker’s youngest son, five, when it’s bedtime — as conveyed in the switch to a major key in the B-section.
Quite frankly, Whitaker’s made one of the best quartet-based jazz albums around. The title track alone, a mere five minutes and 17 seconds long, plays better than entire symphonies in two sets. “When We Find Ourselves Alone,” Whitaker’s own composition, easily transitions through several moods and territorial tyrannies. Barth is on fire, refusing to succumb to the easy rhythms of his keys; instead, borrowing liberally from a classical Beethoven shuffle, pushing the limits in the off season. Hart takes on the role of the melodic mediator, other-worldly in his pursuits, shirking the jagged edges of Whitaker, Hutchinson, and Barth’s angular rhythms. And this is just the first half! The second half rolls out in an impossibly Monk-inspired Parisian waltz, gathering up every romantic jazz image in a post-modernist world. Tortured romance and forbidden love play a major role in this original commissioned work for Jazz Up South (migrant tales) from two years ago.
“I think of what Carl [Allen] and I did on our records as 21st century soul jazz,” Whitaker elaborated. “This record is closer to modern hard bop. It’s about swinging and having a good time. Even though I hadn’t gigged with any of them for years, there’s a certain freedom to playing with people you trust that you can’t get otherwise. I worked with Bruce from 1989 to 1991 with Terence Blanchard, and he’s like a big brother to me. I was on the road for four years with Greg and three with Antonio in Roy Hargrove’s group. They’re like my little brothers, and we’re all grown men now. All these guys knew my daughter as a child, and they hadn’t seen her since she was probably 10 years old.”
Whitaker and his daughter, Rockelle Fortin (get her a solo record STAT!), remove all distractions to prepare a rubato cover of the oft-covered “Autumn Leaves.” Nothing like this. Whitaker’s bass serves also as a cello contorto in the spare introduction before Fortin’s familiar refrain becomes scat-sure, taking on the characteristics of innumerable divas with their indomitable spirits. Excellent change.
Bruce Barth’s machine-gun piano solo and Greg Hutchinson’s matching drum-metal shots in “Freedom Day,” Antonio Hart’s plaintive saxophone primer — catching melodic triggers — in “A Mother’s Cry,” the complete meltdown of then and now in a soulful jazz reduction from “When You Played With Roy”…these are the moments that elevate Rodney Whitaker’s new album from the maddening crowd, and more than prove jazz is alive and kicking.
Artist quotes pulled from a press release, provided by DL Media.