Back in September of last year, Chicago jazz saxophonist and composer Shawn Maxwell told AXS about a new quintet he intended to put together after successfully changing the genre with his 10-piece, pseudo-big band, Alliance, on two releases, the Feb. 18, 2014 all-original, self-titled album and a 2014 quickie EP, Bridge.
Maxwell's New Tomorrow comes out Sept. 16, a little earlier than promised, featuring a little more than a quintet, thanks to a beefed-up trumpet section with Chad McCullough, Corey Wilkes and Victor Garcia. Wilkes couldn't record for the entire session, so Maxwell branched out with two other trumpet voices filling in on different songs, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, adding to the changes he's so fond of.
New Tomorrow isn't a departure from the trouble-making, genre-splitting Alliance, which stood out for the use of French horns, vibes and guitar, but no piano or trumpet. He's still on that trip ("While I have still been composing for the Alliance, I will be giving it my full attention in October. The next, full-length Alliance disc is scheduled right now for a late 2016 release").
He's even on that trip - in a more traditional jazz format of rhythm and horns, with trumpets this time - in the lavish, 14-track New Tomorrow, another record of all-original tunes, some full-on compositions, others acting as short interludes.
This time around, Maxwell on alto sax and flute records with a narrower, laser-like focus on splitting the catchy melody with individual insights, while bringing in more funk and soul, over the uneven, shifting grains of sand that has become his foundational signature.
He's enabled by some powerful, uniquely individual sidemen and bandleaders on their own: drummer Phil Beale, acoustic and electric bassist Junius Paul and keyboardist Matt Nelson (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, piano) making up the solid rhythm section, and trumpeters Garcia, McCullough and Wilkes, who, despite his busy schedule, made the most of the three-minute, 27-second "Throw Away Tune #2."
As Neil Tesser noted in the excellent profile that serves as the liner notes, Maxwell may come from what appears to be a strait-laced, suburban community, but he's as restless and rebellious as they come musically.
Alliance was Maxwell's departure from feeding into the jazz norm of show and tell. After listening to other musicians doing different things with jazz, the saxophonist who's also a teacher decided to go out on a limb first with the Alliance band, and now New Tomorrow.
"This band extends from what I was doing with the Alliance, especially compositionally; the material is heavily composed, rather than just a 12-measure head with solos. I'm looking for a new, updated version of jazz, with other contemporary things mixed in - funk, soul, hip-hop," Maxwell explained to Tesser.
Listening to the likes of saxophonist composers Donny McCaslin and David Binney also helped formulate the plan to break away into other realms of music. These guys were putting EDM and rock into their ferocious, original jazz. "I got way into what they've been doing, and it evolved into this. A good portion of my thinking was to have something like a pop melody, with a very easy, repetitive hook, but to make it more complicated - something you could be singing and not even realize the complexity underneath."
For one or two tracks, including the opener, "Embraceable Excuses" - hip-hop/jazz in reverse - he's doing it right. You can hear these catchy melodies above all that hard work. Most of the cross-breeding seems to go on when the melody breaks with tradition and the individual players go off on their interpretive solos, at times a bit too long "Progressive Regression" (but that's jazz for you).
Many of the original compositions still require jazz ears, aka the patience of Job to enjoy the quiet, momentous build into these spectacular mini-shows. There aren't enough show-stopping, burning moments that just pound you into submission to recommend this album as a breakthrough involving hip-hop quite yet.
But as for a jazz album that continues to break down the walls, New Tomorrow works, especially in the first two tracks. "Embraceable Excuses" and "Work In Progress" achieve Maxwell's difference best.
"Embraceable Excuses" pops with melody threaded throughout over a 5/4 time signature, yet plays like a dream pop-funk tune.
Like surgeons, the musicians dissect the compositions while keeping up the odd meters. On "Work In Progress," bassist Paul does exactly that, as keyboardist Nelson keeps the bare-bones melody in play. Then, Maxwell solos, upending any semblance of traditional form, effectively stealing the show, as Nelson on his Fender Rhodes continues to distract the listener with that melody. Same for Beale on his own lightning rod.
Maxwell speaks to "Work In Progress's" deceptive ads in the liner notes. It's not simply a matter of a melodic, intro piano riff the horns pick up. "The listener might zone in and hear one or the other as the melody. It shifts your attention."
At times, however, the compositions are too composed for such lofty goals. Nevertheless, for a traditional jazz format with traditional jazz instruments, Shawn Maxwell's New Tomorrow keeps the ground shifting with interesting movements not stuck in jazz alone but vibrant with funk, soul, and small injections of hip-hop.
Fellow Origin recording artist McCullough threads a slow-building jazz-hip-hop-worthy anthem on "Saturday Morning Dance," calling to mind early Tower of Power in the demo stages.
McCullough is himself a methodical extractor of embedded tones in his own band, The Spin Quartet's In Circles, and with Bram Weijters on Abstract Quantities. His voice, on six tracks, is reminiscent of marching bands in and out of formation, where you can almost hear him thinking of a way out of the exits.
Garcia, on the other hand, brings an immediate fire - opposite to McCullough's cerebral cool, slow burn - this dense duality of light and attraction, and a rich, hip texture to his featured five tracks.
On "Three Kinds Of Heat," his playing slips in and out, constantly in rhythmic matches with the backbeat, shades of his Latin jazz. He's liable to hit the beats harder then melt into a shiny bath.
Garcia's showmanship counts; he's a highly in-demand sideman who's backed Aretha Franklin, Paquito D'Rivera, Branford Marsalis, the Four Tops, Jon Faddis, and Arturo Sandoval, just to scratch the surface and give you a glimpse into the extent of his reach. He's also on two Grammy-nominated albums and one Latin Grammy-nominated album.
There isn't nearly enough of Maxwell himself in this album, save for starting a few fires. On "Three Kinds Of Heat," he almost sounds tentative. The tunes themselves tend to take awhile to burn. Once they do, they definitely attract your attention, as you clamor for more hot flashes of Maxwell, drummer Beale, bassist Paul, and trumpeter Garcia.
Maybe they can join Shawn Maxwell's Alliance for that next album.