Over the past 15 years or so the Albany saxophonist Michael Zilber has recorded a series of critically hailed collaborations, joining forces with an imposing array of master improvisers like drum maestro Steve Smith, saxophone legend Dave Liebman, and the painterly guitar explorer John Stowell.
But Zilber's latest album Originals for the Originals
(Origin) is the kind of project that doesn't accommodate a co-leader. A highly personal tribute to his saxophone heroes, the album summons the spirits of transcendent talents like John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond. Rather than trying to evoke the unmistakable sounds of these storied players, he bases each piece on a melodic phrase or harmonic passage drawn from their music.
"It's an homage, but I'm not trying to be a copycat," says Zilber, who celebrates the album's release Friday at the California Jazz Conservatory with pianist Matt Clark, bassist Peter Barshay, and drummer Akira Tana.
"With almost every piece there was something specific I was inspired by. Joe Henderson's most famous composition is 'Inner Urge.' The piece I wrote for him 'Hen House' takes the chord changes backwards, and the rhythmic shape is also inspired by 'Inner Urge.'"
That might sound like inside baseball to non-musicians - I couldn't hear the mirrored harmonic structure on 'Hen House' though the tune did sound strangely familiar - but Zilber's music is as emotionally compelling as it is heady. Part of what makes Originals so consistently engaging is that he possesses a striking sound of his own. On tenor it's thick, bright and pliable with a rounded edge, while his keen and imploring soprano sound sax tone emerges softened, as through a scrim of gauze.
Reared in Vancouver, British Columbia and shaped by the rigorous scenes in Boston and New York City, Zilber has maintained strong ties to the East Coast, and 10 of the 11 tracks on Originals feature a top-shelf New York rhythm section with pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist James Genus, and drummer Clarence Penn.
"I will always be bi-coastal," says Zilber, who runs the jazz program as Los Medanos College and teaches regularly at the CJC. "I knew Kikoski from New York and James Genus was the bassist in my band for the last three years there. I love the way they play. I really think Kikoski is one of the 10 greatest living jazz piano players. I always wanted to do a record with him and I thought this material was ideal."
His CJC band with Clark, Barshay and Tana play on one track ("Hen House"), and it's no coincidence that they all spent significant time on the New York scene. It's also no coincidence that Zilber includes two contrasting pieces he wrote inspired by powerhouse saxophonist Dave Liebman, a longtime friend and mentor with whom he recorded the 2003 album Live at the Jazzschool. (Full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes).
The luscious ballad "Autumn Lieb" includes a fragment of the standard "Autumn Leaves," a tune that Liebman has recorded several times, while "Lieb Dich" is a torrid burner that employs an interval from Cole Porter's "I Love You."
"Some people call me a disciple of Lieb's, and he was definitely a mentor and a real inspiration," Zilber says. "He got me my first record deal with the French label Owl Records, back when people could get other people record deals."
If there's one track that's something of a surprise it's the closer "St. Paul (Desmond)," which is the album's longest piece at almost 11 minutes. A gorgeous ballad statement inspired by the Dave Brubeck Quartet's long-time alto saxophonist, it builds off an opening phrase from "Emily." Zilber encountered Desmond's ethereal version of the haunting Johnny Mandel theme on the altoist's 1969 album Summertime (CTI) as a novice saxophonist just starting to transcribe solos.
A prolific composer, Zilber has played an important role in the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra as a player and writer, contributing numerous pieces to the band's repertoire. While he wrote several pieces specifically for Originals, he's been writing tunes in this vein for years. Part of the fun of creating the album was putting the pieces together to "make for a well-paced album," he says. "It's almost an antiquated idea, a project designed as an album, meant to be listened to from beginning to end."