Steve Heckman Quintet swings and burns through American Jazz Songbook
Jake Stillman

The comparisons to Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, and Hank Mobley are on the money with Bay Area multi-reedman Steve Heckman, especially in his new October 14, 2014 release, Search For Peace, on Jazzed Media. In the midst of the mostly happy-go-lucky train going through some beloved jazz instrumental standards, there are moments of seductive, romantic bliss on Heckman’s fourth album — as found in the somber sax-heavy, “Autumn In New York,” by Vernon Duke.

The same storied musicians found on the Brooklyn native’s chart-topping Born To Be Blue (2013) — a collection of Great American Standards — return for another round here: New York guitarist Howard Alden (Dizzy Gillespie, Clark Terry), with Heckman’s in-demand Bay Area musicians, pianist/organist Matt Clark (John Faddis, Kellye Gray), drummer Akira Tana (Sonny Rollins, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson, James Moody), and bassist Marcus Shelby (Tom Waits, Count Basie Orchestra, ASCAP Popular Award - Songwriters/Composers). Their collaborative friendly energies mix and mingle all around the mostly upbeat, swinging pieces with light romps through calypso (“Fungii Mama”), Thelonious Monk’s upturned tone baster, “Pannonica,” and Sonny Clark’s “Melody For C,” made slightly smooth jazz/straight-ahead by the atomic strings of Alden and Shelby.

Outwardly, the nine songs bump, grind, and dance along innocently enough, walking with a spring in their step — until you’re caught unaware by the incoming stalwart, penetration of an earth-shattering bass and the gut-flicker of guitar so taut yet so eloquent as to revive Chet Baker. That’s “Melody For C,” a Sonny Clark song with a deceptively pleasant appeal overlaid on errant corrugation, a lot of things going on at once to serve the propulsion of easy swing with substantive pops of solos meant to convict the others to compete.

“Hi-Fly” by Randy Weston charges everyone with a speeding ticket, as Heckman (on baritone) and Alden, to Clark (on Hammond) to Tana, charges up the bill in ludicrous amounts of singular artistry that also somehow embraces the challenge of prolonging the musical fun of melodic pepper and harmonic difference. Guitarist Alden almost reconfigures the density of particles in the room as he surges a delicate, fine balance between reach and interpretation.

If you weren’t careful, Grant Green’s “Grantstand” would easily fly under the radar of jazz dynamics. Everyone chimes in at breakneck speed, yet it is in the way they interrupt, diverge, and reconnect that is truly dynamic in variant moments… in the way Alden’s picking action effectively inspires Clark to intensify or demystify his almost off-the-railing organ accompaniment before Heckman performs a dizzying array of vital notes climbing over one another in a hurry to get to the other side. It’s a beautiful, harmonic ride, deceptively light and lively, given a full-body temperature probe by those slides and turns.

Heckman, who plays mostly tenor on the record, contributes “an altered minor blues, with a definitively funky attitude” in his original composition, “Hangin’ At Slug’s” to his “American Jazz Songbook.” Like the others, his features the creative illuminations of his band members, as they carve out pieces for themselves — Alden’s unabashed inquisition of metallic tone and silken alloy, Clark’s elusive, ragamuffin B-3 blues chasing its own tail, Tana and Shelby’s all-too-brief drum-bass interlude, and of course Heckman keeping check then bringing it all together.

Of his most recent album Heckman wrote in the liner notes, “I hope this diverse collection of material pleases your ears and souls.” It does indeed do both, a testament to the superb musicianship of the players and most especially to the vast experience of the bandleader. Heckman grew up idolizing Coltrane and being singled out by other heroes such as saxophonists Stan Getz, Pharoah Sanders, and Charles Lloyd, as well as major critics.

All About Jazz critic Dan Bilawsky once wrote that “Saxophonist Steve Heckman has absorbed bits and pieces of many masters… a matte finish take on Sonny Rollins, a fondness for Zoot Sims, and a hint of Coleman Hawkins merge with the Trane influence to create something altogether different, yet totally traditional. Heckman’s music is straight ahead, built in the image of those who came before him, but his blend-horn sound belongs to no one else…the soul and sound of a true saxophone sophisticate.”

The Steve Heckman Quintet’s Search For Peace swings, struts, and at times, even burns, reviving the stalemate of a straight-ahead genre for a promising jazz future.