Photo: Tory Williams / Courtesy of the artist

Jazz Woodwind Player Alexa Tarantino Impresses on ‘Winds of Change’

Jazz artist Alexa Tarantino plays with sumptuous tone on flute, alto saxophone, and soprano saxophone. And because she never leans on the sound alone, it creeps up on you during each tune.

Winds of Change
Alexa Tarantino
31 May 2019

Posi-Tone Records is creating a remarkable and consistent body of work. Producer Mark Free and engineer Nick O’Toole have taken an old idea into the new century, creating a jazz label with a specific aesthetic and a stable of players who often mix and match together to create sumptuous, swinging music. Think Blue Note. Think Prestige. From the 1950s and 1960s.

Other labels exert great influence as well, partly by the creative artists they choose to sign. ECM not only has a “sound” created by producer Manfred Eicher, but it sign musicians who hew to its sound—recently, for example, trumpeter Ralph Alessi has been making “classic ECM” records partly because he has a naturally keening, introspective sound. Pi Records is creating a consistent body of work by signing the most interesting musicians in the New Jazz, which is no surprise given that Pi was essentially birthed by putting out a couple of Henry Threadgill recordings to great acclaim.

The difference with Posi-Tone is that Mark Free is deliberately reaching back a bit in time to create jazz in the new century that has some of the mainstream appeal of the post-bop jazz of a several (or more) decades back. The music is fresh and complex and wonderful, but the edges can be rounded off a bit. The recent Posi-Tone recordings are sterling, but often sterling in similar ways.

Alexa Tarantino is a relatively young woodwind player (flute, alto, and soprano saxophones), educated at the Eastman School of Music and currently studying at Julliard, whose new Posi-Tone record doesn’t break the mold but at least puts some strain on its edges. It sounds great, lovely, appealing (like they all do), but it pulls away from the pack a bit too.

The band here features a killer rhythm section of pianist Christian Sands, bassist Joe Martin, and Rudy Royston on drums. And that sure is a start. Then it pairs Tarantino on several tunes with trombonist Nick Finzer, and the weight of his low sound makes this ensemble just a bit funkier. Tarantino’s tone on alto has a pleasantly soft timbre but tinged with a tasty bite around the edges. Finzer brings out the darkness of her tone when playing in an ensemble with her, for example on “Face Value”. That tune is set up as a riff-based swinger, with a perfect unison between the horns at first, then a hip split as Tarantino shifts to her higher active and lifts the sound sharp and spicy. All the solos follow suit: no-nonsense but with personality pouring out. The leader lets her sound run a bit tart, then Finzer plays with some rough edges showing. Sands is cool and slick, but his attack is so rhythmically precise that you never forget that his piano is also a drum.

Some of the credit has to go to Royston, who sounds like every stroke of his sticks is linked to the rest of the band. On Sand’s solo on “Face Value”, the two musicians seem to be playing with one rat-a-tat mind. Royston colors the quieter tunes and drives the faster ones—and usually, he is doing both. On the 6/8 “Seesaw”, for example, his patter and prodding is a perfect counterpoint to Tarantino’s probing soprano sound. As she solos, piping and reaching out to find the perfect line, Royston is constantly popping his snare and toms into the conversation. At the center of the tune, they trade twelve-beat phrases outright, and you never want it to end.

Sands is quietly crucial throughout Winds of Change. His 2018 release, Facing Dragons, was a fine piece of mainstream playing, and here he seems like a Kenny Barron for the next generation—not flashy but making everything he plays on sound better. His contribution on “Square One” is essential: with Tarantino’s alto sounding gorgeous and simple on the theme, Sands voices the accompaniment for maximum interest and always has a tasty line to place around the edges. His solo is subtle but riveting. On “Undercurrent” he and Martin play a unison bass figure that sets off the melody, and his solo features a similarly active left hand that emerges with surging improvised lines, creating counterpoint. On “Breeze”, he plays beneath Tarantino’s witty solo like a best friend urging a friend on as she tells a great joke. His solo starts with low-register block chords that are slightly Brubeck-ian and then blossom into a garrulous statement that matches Tarantino’s melodic sensibility. The two seem like an ideal team.

The leader herself simply quietly gets under your skin. Most obviously, she plays Jobim’s “Zingaro” on alto flute with tremendous gravity and confidence. Her opening, unaccompanied cadenza is low and gorgeous, putting a slightly Middle Eastern slant on the famous melody. Before Sands enters on piano, she bends the melody over bass and drums in intriguing ways, staying low in the register and playing with such rich tone that you hear the tune anew. Sands plays the first solo, sure, but you can’t wait until she returns, and when she does, she plays the most breathtaking solo on the record—still not flashy but using Jobim’s melody in short pieces as she develops her own ideas, many of which connect to the opening statement, bending the tune away from its bossa nova origins and giving it a new flavor. Even the out chorus, with Sands and Tarantino trading phrases, is somehow different and better than this kind of thing usually is. The album’s last track is a ballad called “Without”, and it allows Tarantino to play a slow, tender theme with very little embellishment, milking the relative quiet to find a sound not unlike Johnny Hodges. At the center of the performance, the rhythm section drops out entirely, and she plays with quiet intensity, leading to a second theme that ends the recording. It is haunting.

When Finzer climbs aboard Tarantino’s tunes, things take off with a snap, and the leader herself responds with some of her best playing. “Ready or Not” is an uptempo bop theme with crackling solos by everyone. The melody has punch, along with a hip bass line that suggests that Tarantino has some Cedar Walton in her composing. Her solo here starts with a lick that she repeats with swagger, leading to a set of fluid lines that punch repeated notes and then fly into swinging phrases. Finzer plays strings of 16th or 32nd notes that just shouldn’t be possible on a slide trombone. “Face Value” is only a smidge slower, with a 32-bar theme that also inspires blowing. This is one of Tarantino’s longest, most adventurous solos of the date.

The coolest arrangement on Winds of Change is “Calm”, with Tarantino’s alto and Finzer’s trombone playing eerie unison passages, becoming the echos of each other, then playing in slick harmony. Finzer’s solo plays loosely with intonation, sounding highly vocalized, particularly as Tarantino starts to play underneath him. She follows suit, getting up into her high register and squealing just a bit at the end of some curlicue phrases. Again, the two players are clearly great partners.

After a few listens, it becomes clear that this is a recording marked by exactly this quality: partnership. Tarantino is beautifully in sync with everyone in her band. There is a sense of sympathy between saxophone and piano, a sparring joy between horn and drums, and a brother/sister feeling between the silky tone Tarantino conjures and Finzer’s acrobatic whir and growl. With younger musicians, we sometimes expect some exhibitionism—Look, Ma! No hands! Show-offery may even be excused as a rite of passage. But Alexa Tarantino is choosing to show off something rarer: connection and chemistry with her band. That her tunes and arrangements are compelling compounds the first virtue. The recording is the best of what Posi-Tone is putting out because the band sounds distinct, not cookie-cut.

And then there is her sound on each of the leader’s three horns. Alexa Tarantino plays with sumptuous tone on flute, alto saxophone, and soprano saxophone. And because she never leans on the sound alone, it creeps up on you during each tune. Wow, your ear says. More, please.

RATING 7 / 10