4 1/2 STARS
Saxophonist/composer Michael Zilber is better known by fellow musicians than by the jazz public, this is an unfortunate truth. The Vancouver, B.C., native moved to Boston in his late teens, then to New York City to begin his musical odyssey. Musicians there recognized his prodigious talent, resulting in recordings with jazz royalty such as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, the Brecker Brothers and Dave Liebman.
Zilber has spent the last 25 years in the San Francisco area, though he states that in terms of musical relationships, " I will always be bi- coastal."
On his latest release on Origin Records, Originals For the Originals (Origin, 2017), his eleventh as a leader/co-leader, he offers an homage to seven titans of the saxophone which features a top-shelf New York rhythm section with pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist James Genus, and drummer Clarence Penn. "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 ten greatest living jazz piano players. I always wanted to do a record with him and I thought this material was ideal," says Zilber. West Coast mates Matt Clark (piano), Peter Barshay (bass), and Akira Tana (drums) join for Zilber's tribute to Joe Henderson, "Hen House."
Summoning the spirits of transcendent masters such as John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond, Zilber takes a very personal approach to channel the essence of his relationships with their collective sound. Rather than trying to evoke the unmistakable sounds of these iconic players, he bases each piece on a melodic phrase or harmonic passage extracted from their music. "It's an homage, but I'm not trying to be a copycat," says Zilber.
The opening salvo "Breckerfast Club," is an up-tempo rant featuring dynamic play from Zilber and Kikoski, both on the tedious head, and the following solos. Inspired by Michael Brecker"s playing on Chick Corea's "Quartet #2." Zilber demonstrates his very original, powerful sound on tenor. "Other than Wayne Shorter, no non- Coltrane tenor player had more influence on me," says Zilber about Brecker, who he considers to have been the most influential of his generation.
On "Autumn Lieb," Zilber switches over to soprano in reverence for NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman. Zilber reharmonized and reconstituted pieces of "Autumn Leaves," and "Autumn in New York, two standards frequented by Liebman over the years. The lyrical melody alludes to a serene and peaceful side to Zilber's composing and playing, connected in spirit with Liebman's eloquent phrasing.
Remaining on soprano, "Weather Wayne" is an homage to Wayne Shorter's Weather Report years in deep burn mode. Shorter is a true renaissance man in the jazz lineage, a bridge to true compositional global outreach, across sixty years. In the post Coltrane world, Shorter revolutionized the high register soprano with a probing multi cultural approach adopted hook, line, and sinker by Zilber. In the interest of allowing the listener some elasticity in their own interpretation, I will just say that this high energy piece will keep me coming back to this album for many years to come.
"Last Night Trane (In the Distance), is an emotive ballad written as an ode to Coltrane's peaceful and deeply spiritual sound on the album Ballads (Impulse, 1963). " My approach was simply to write a ballad that feels like what Trane might have played," said Zilber. He starts the piece with the first two notes from "I Want to Talk About You " from Coltrane's early release, Soultrane (Prestige, 1958). Zilber summons beautiful, harmonic colors, and alludes to Coltrane's sentimental side. His tone, and lush phrasing indeed bares his romantic side as well.
A lot of what makes Originals For the Originals so engaging is that Zilber possesses a striking sound all his own. His tenor sound is deep, dense, and elastic, rounded off by impeccable articulation, while from his probing intuitive sensibility on soprano emerges a softer, more reflective narrative.
While Zilber dedicates his compositions to seven titans of the instrument, this dedicated premise is not what draws me to this recording. If familiarity with historic players such as John Coltrane, or Sonny Rollins draws listeners to explore this album, then Zilber's homage will have served the purpose of enlightening us to their dynamic talents. Put simply, Zilber is one of the true masters of modern jazz saxophone, and though an unknown anomaly to many, his prodigious talents evidenced by his recordings and live performances are truth. Originals For the Originals is a top 10 of 2017 candidate without a doubt, and a must listen for any jazz fan that pays homage to the masters of the past, and moves ever forward with the inspired works of the present.