A mature and quiet record featuring jazz trio (sax, guitar, drums) and woodwind trio, this is a floating, whispering joy.
Adam Kolker’s Beckon is a shimming, beautiful record, and one that sounds like few others in today’s jazz. It is built around a sympathetic trio of Kolker on tenor saxophone, guitarist Steve Cardenas, and drummer Billy Mintz. Most tracks add a woodwind trio of bassoon, flute, and clarinet, but these additions are spare and light, like a pastel wash behind an already wonderful charcoal drawing.
Kolker has been on the scene in New York since the mid-1990s, and he has played with Ray Barretto, Maria Schneider, Bobby Previte, and many others. He recorded beautifully with the late guitarist John Abercrombie. The current trio is a keeper: flexible, lyrical, and unique.
Cardenas is critical to the success of this band. The precedent for a sax/guitar/drums trio is the great Paul Motian Trio featuring Bill Frisell and tenor player Joe Lovano. Cardenas, however, carefully avoids all Frisell-isms and does not try to fill the space left by the absence of a bass player. He is quiet and mostly clean in tone, shifting as the composition dictates, but never overwhelming. Though “Cannonball” is the outlier in being a rock tune that requires a bit of overdrive and a guitar groove, mostly we hear Cardenas as a melodic partner and colorist.
That rock tune was written by the drummer, Billy Mintz, who has also played with just about everyone in Los Angeles and New York. “Cannonball” lets him play a boogaloo backbeat to get the trio grooving on a blues form, but most of the record finds Mintz hiding around corners, nudging the ensemble with magic rather than force, barely audible at times unless you turn up and listen with care. Mintz also wrote “Beautiful You”, a ballad that begins with Kolker overdubbing flutes and clarinets and finishes with a variation on the melody played on tenor with Mintz crafting the subtlest drum accompaniment in the history of recorded music. His whispers and hums on the kit are worth a thousand press rolls.
As a result -- and even though Kolker is the primary soloist throughout Beckon -- the leader can sound like the lost man on his own record. He plays with a modest, airy tone, and he makes not one flashy move in 45 minutes of music. The opener, “Millersville”, never hits a sense of tempo, remaining a conversation around its melody that feels suspended and without a pocket for four minutes. The result is that you listen to every gesture with care. And because every gesture -- all the invented variants on the tune and small answers to those lines -- is interesting, you remain interested. Kolker won’t let himself wail, not even really on “Cannonball”. Good for him.
A couple of the songs have a more composed, chamber jazz feeling.
“Slow Dance” begins with a tender arrangement for the woodwinds in waltz time. If Erik Satie had been a jazz musician, he might have written this. Kolker’s solo is elegant and simply constructed, reminding me some of Coltrane’s patiently famous solo on “Blue in Green” from Kind of Blue. Cardenas blends with the winds most gently. “Cycles” also indulges the wind trio with Kolker up front, featuring a more harmonically complex arrangement that gives way to the jazz trio. The two play seamlessly together for most of the tune, however, creating chamber jazz that is so lovely that its sonic chilliness is overcome.
There is one standard here, Harry Warren’s “I Wish I Knew”, played by Kolker and Cardenas in an incredible duet. Cardenas is wondrous whether he is playing pretty chords or harmonically wise single-note lines. I find his solo to be the highlight, as Kolker finds ways to “accompany” with quiet, occasional appearances and the guitarist builds a solo that keeps the melody in your head.
The title track is my favorite, combining the strengths of every other performance here. It begins with the wind ensemble, follows with a dreamless conversation between Kolker and Cardenas, then it hits a skipping 6/8 groove that lets the wind trio interact with the jazz trio. Cardenas’s solo rides over quiet Mintz brushwork and the wind trio. Kolker wrote that one (and all but the Warren and Mintz tunes), and his sense of a strong melody is clear.
Beckon is the most modest and quiet recording that I have fallen for in a long time. You have to be careful not to take it for granted. It shines in the dark, maybe with your headphones on. It is like that great teacher you had who could command your attention by getting quieter in class rather than by yelling.
You can hear a pin drop through most of Beckon. It’s a floating, lovely piece of work.