In any endeavor — business, education, the arts — the teacher-student relationship is critical for growth of new talent and skills. The mentor-mentee relationship takes the educational and growth commitment to a higher level. In the two recordings Rust Belt Roots by Randy Napoleon and Each Step by Nathan Borton, you hear the living mentor-mentee liaison through the lens of six strings thoughtfully stroked on beautiful guitars.
Napoleon's Rust Belt Roots was released in early summer 2021. The whole title of the OA2 recording is "Randy Napoleon plays Wes Montgomery, Grant Green & Kenny Burrell," which sums up the intent, content and character of the session. What also comes through brilliantly is Napoleon's love and respect for his early mentors and teachers such as the late Louis Smith, pianist Rick Roe, bassist Paul Keller and club owners who gave him the opportunity to learn his craft on the job.
Two of Napoleon's mentors, Roe and Keller, join his contemporary, drummer Sean Dobbins, for nine of the fourteen selections. One piece is an exquisite solo performance of Napoleon's original composition, "The Man Who Sells Flowers," while four selections are recorded by Napoleon with fellow Michigan State University faculty members, pianist Xavier Davis and bassist Rodney Whitaker, as well as Michigan native drummer Quincy Davis — now on the faculty at University of North Texas. Whether the ensembles are swinging the funky and blues-drenched Montgomery numbers, the energetic Grant Green tunes, the thoughtful Kenny Burrell pieces or one of Napoleon's inventive originals, it is all worthy listening. Rust Belt Roots is a disc the straight-ahead jazz lover can put in a player and relish from start to finish.
Over years, one of the ways I've described Napoleon's musical approach is: no unnecessary motion or notes. Napoleon's mentee, Nathan Borton, may have independently arrived at that motto, but it seems like Borton's experience with Napoleon crystallized Borton's singular vision, approach and attack. Borton's guitar tone rings clear, bright and uncluttered on each selection of Each Step. Borton's mentor, Napoleon filled an essential role as producer on Borton's debut recording. Both teacher and student made the right choices by filling essential roles with musicians who were sympathetic. From the MSU faculty-student roster you'll revel in the talents and precision of pianist Xavier Davis, bassist Rodney Whitaker, tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera and bass trombonist Chris Glassman. Drummer Keith Hall from Western Michigan University's faculty completes the ensemble for Each Step. Originals are balanced with standards from the Great American Songbook. There's a strong swinger from Napoleon's catalogue: "These Are Things We Throw Away" and pieces penned by or inspired by guitarist Grant Green. This too is a disc that a straight-ahead jazz lover can put in the player and savor all the way through.
Both recordings give us a glimpse of the swinging musical magic happening in East Lansing, Michigan. Whitaker in no small part is due the credit for making it happen, but his fellow faculty members and brilliant students accent his herculean efforts. Purchase both of these discs on the Seattle, Washington-based label OA2 Records so that more can hear the jazz magic made in Michigan.