An under-heard but top-notch tenor player, leading a sharp band through excellent tunes. Vibes, guitar, driving rhythm, all right here.
Walt Weiskopf is the kind of tenor saxophonist who has a big, bright sound — the sound that so many tenor players want. His horn pops out of the mix, whirring with ideas and boasting a soulful sound, bobbing and curling around tricky melodies that move his band headlong into your ears. He has been a musician’s musician for many years, logging time early in his career with the Buddy Rich big band and Toshiko Akiyoshi’s orchestra, which means that he got the kind of old-school training that hardly exists in jazz any more. He is a formidable improviser, composer, and arranger as a result.
So it’s all wrong that he’s best known as the current featured saxophonist with the Steely Dan touring band. Not that being chosen by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen as a favorite saxophonist is a bad thing — but taking features on such classic sax-solo tunes as “Aja” and “Deacon Blue” doesn’t tell you all that Weiskopf is about.
Overdrive doesn’t tell you everything either, but it’s a fine place to get acquainted. This is, in many ways, a great jazz recording for a Steely Dan fan to dig, what with its bright colors (the chiming vibes of Behn Gillece are great), its stinging Yotam Silberstein guitar solos (less distorted, perhaps, than Jon Herington’s recent work with the Dan, but of similar style still), and its harmonically tricky but compelling tunes. And of course with the muscular tenor playing from the leader.
Take “Like Mike”, a super-catchy melody that has a down-up-down shape and feels like a wheel hurtling downhill at breakneck speed. The crisp line is boosted by a killer bass line doubled between piano and David Wong’s acoustic bass, with vibes in support. The melody becomes a waterfall of notes before rejoining the main theme. There’s a quick stop-time break section as well, and that launches the band repeatedly into a set of swinging, fast improvised sections. Weiskopf burns through it with melodic intelligence and ease. But what gives you even more pleasure are the things you might miss on first hearing: a smooth and gorgeous counter melody played under the tenor solo by guitar and vibes — the kind of arrangement detail usually missing from small band dates. And then, as the performance seems to be wrapping up, a slowed down section lets Silberstein shine in conversation with Weiskopf over a blues vamp and it works beautifully.
For the most part, Overdrive provides these pleasures. Not that the group sounds bombastic of anything less than elastic, but the prevailing sound is full and busy, with lots of arranged pieces and counter themes, lots of chords, lots of what fine mainstream jazz can deliver in spades. “Night Vision” is a solid modified blues with sharp solos from Gillece and Peter Zak on piano, but nothing that drags on too long. Interest is held throughout. “Four Horsemen” is a lit fuse of a cooker, with a felicitous set of chord changes that make the solos sparkle. “No Biz” is a Monk-like composition that uses a couple of alternating, angular lines to just set the band loose on a grooving twelve-bar blues.
There are lovely ballads too. “Jewel and a Flower” is part Ellington, part Bill Evans, with a yearning built into the arc of the melody that belies its unusual, wandering chord structure. Rather than repeat itself in obvious ways, this song takes you on a journey and eschews any section of improvisation. Once the tune is done, it settles into silence, a tactic jazz musicians ought to use more often. “Waltz for Dad” is a gorgeous floating theme that, like every one of these pieces, is concise at about five minutes of continual interest.
There is only one standard on Overdrive, and that is an unusual arrangement of Michel Legrand’s “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life?” It’s interesting to find this tune here, as it was played so often by jazz musicians a generation ago but seems to have passed out of the repertoire. It’s natural that Walt Weiskopf revives it here, as it fits his sensibility exceptionally well. It is a long theme with complex harmonies, and Weiskopf outfits his version with a Latin rhythm and some displaced accents, remaking it just a bit to let us rehear it again, with great pleasure.
It seems notable that Weiskopf’s band on Overdrive consists of slightly undersung New York musicians of the top quality. Drummer Donald Edwards is active and choice throughout, yet I don’t know him from many other recordings. Silberstein is from Israel originally and deserves wider recognition. Gillece is as good a vibes-man as you’re going to hear, yet how many reading this review know him? It’s a top-notch band, left to right.
Cheers to Weiskopf for putting them together and getting them to our ears. Cheers to Overdrive, generally. Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, how about letting this quintet open for Steely Dan this fall?