Pat Donaher is a yogi, a professor, a high school teacher, a composer, and an alto saxophonist. Like many creative musicians, he was professionally educated and is a professional through and through, but simultaneously he is using his creativity across platforms. The hustle of the modern jazz musician ain’t easy.
The effort, however, doesn’t show in Donaher’s gorgeous output. Music suffuses Donaher’s life. As a high school teacher, he leads a top ensemble of young people learning Duke Ellington and the canon. At the same time, in his personal life, Donaher uses music to engage with friends and family. Which explains the title of Occasionally, his new recording with a stellar band that includes an all-star rhythm section of pianist Carmen Staaf, bassist Tony Scherr, and Allison Miller’s drums. Each of the tunes was composed for a person, place, or time in Donaher’s life—dedicated to the intersection of sound and experience.
Two of the compositions are named “624”—for the jazz classroom at the Eastman School of Music, where Donaher trained. “624 (What We Imagined)” is performed by Donaher, trumpeter Jason Palmer, and Staff as a trio—a nod to an album in that format by pianist Michael Cain. The tune, as written, gives Palmer’s beautiful, mellow trumpet the lead voice, as Donaher traces a harmony beneath him, sometimes playing a counter-line. Staaf is given a third written part, creating an expansive sound for such a small group. Staaf plays an unaccompanied solo that sounds largely composed as a secondary theme. Improvising follows in a gentle collective that traces the harmonic path of the theme—the horns passing back and forth the spotlight even as they invent accompanying lines. “624 Revisited (What We Became)” is largely the same melody, now with Miller, Scherr, and guitarist Tim Watson joining in a more complex and sharply articulated accompaniment. This time, Staaf’s solo is a modern and harmonically adventurous improvisation, with the rhythm section prattling in post-bop conversation.
Also historical in this way is “Whoosh/Oomph”, dedicated to Detour, the performance space where Donaher played shortly after leaving Rochester for New York City. As jazz turned to the new century, he was part of the group finding a way for the music to groove while maintaining its sense of daring. A peaceful introductory statement by slightly-echoplexed alto saxophone gives way to a funk vamp anchored by syncopated bass and guitar lines under a snapping horn line that splits the difference between Ornette Coleman and the Brecker Brothers. Watson, appropriately, takes the first fleet solo through a thin blanket of distortion, the band grooving and then swinging for a short bridge in the form. Miller and the leader get solos, too, with the theme ending as the two horns jabber like teenaged siblings. The tune captures a spirit of youth.
“Bouncin’ Off the Walls” also has a pent-up jump—but this one is contemporary, dedicated to the feeling of being cooped up during the pandemic. Palmer and Donaher play a toggling melody line mostly in unison, often in quick call-and-response with the piano. The nervous energy pops but also can develop into a squirmy kind of swing, particularly under Palmer’s trumpet solo. With Watson playing ambiguous chords and Scherr/Miller sounding plenty like Ron Carter and Tony Williams, this track sometimes evokes a mid-late ’60s Miles Davis Quintet date.
The funkiest and most joyous composition on Occasionally is “D2”, a dedication to two of the composer’s nephews, which has the main theme set over a modified go-go beat (that’s a Washington, DC funk style to which the DC area-raised Allison Miller is a native), then relieved by a modern jazz release. The melody is larkish and sharp, but the action is in the wide-open conversation that takes place during the improvisations. Miller and Staaf push the polyrhythms and dissonance beneath Watson’s adventurous guitar solo, creating one of the album’s highlights. The second episode during “D2” is a duet improvisation for the horns, which then develops into the winds playing a riff over which Staaf can ride and rip. As is common in this collection, Donaher avoids having all his amazing bandmates take turns soloing in an incessant (if skillful) carousel. Wise.
Some of the best playing can be found on the less obviously exuberant compositions. Two were written for weddings, and they are appropriately rich in sunshine. “Valiant on Valence” refers to a New Orleans street name, but the pulse here is not a parade beat. Scherr gives the whole tune either a limber lope or a fleet walking tempo, while Miller moves from a Jamal-ian “Poinciana” groove to an elegant swing. Palmer is tart and tasty on his solo—patient with his phrasing in the manner of, say, Blue Mitchell from an early 1960s Blue Note session. The leader’s tone is even and cool on his solo, staying low enough in the alto’s register that he sometimes sounds like an updated Lester Young.
“Wedding Day” is slower and less sprightly, evoking a sunrise—a dawning, a beginning. Donaher handles the initial melody with a purity of tone, and then as the day kicks into gear, trumpet and guitar play larger roles — as if the wedding party was gathering on a beautiful field or beach. The written figure for the guitar that leads into the saxophone solo is a perfect example of the small but critical wonders that can be found on Occasionally—it’s an off-handed moment of beauty that leads your ears into something else.
Throughout “Wedding Day”, we hear the band execute a beautifully constructed arrangement, the bass line interweaving with a slow throbbing pulse and shimmering harmonies. The improvisations course through this in an integral way, so as we hear them return under (or is it over?) Staaf’s solo, we are cool with the blend of each. That is what makes the whole recording special. The same integration is the hallmark of “Black Suits, White Smoke”, which recalls the funeral of Donaher’s father. The tone here isn’t dour, however. It sounds like a gathering, with Staaf’s downward arpeggio line acting as a refrain, Scherr’s bass busy always providing a counter-melody, Miller’s percussion almost a complementary orchestra of sound, and Watson’s guitar washing the performance with translucence. Palmer’s trumpet solo on this one is a session highlight—reaching for some crying higher tones without ever seeming dramatic.
That is a reasonable summary of Occasionally, this subtle and mature session from a composer who is likely below many listeners’ radar. Pat Donaher, “centered”, I would imagine as a yoga expert, is equally balanced as a musician. His sextet on this recording is not flashy even as it is star-studded; it is never pounding when it can be pulsing. Though there is both funk and balladry, swing and complexity, there is a clear identity to the music. And that identity is highly recommended.