Brian Settles/Central Union – Secret Handshake (2011)

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There’s something odd I noticed about this record from the opening moments: there’s a piano on it. Why is that so bizarre you ask? I don’t think there’s ever been a piano before on an Engine Studios recording. Then again, there hasn’t been a Brian Settles record before either. Last June, both of these firsts made their way to the public when Settles’ Secret Handshake album went on sale.

Saxophone specialist Settles first got notice here as a key component in Tom Abbs’ Frequency Response ensemble, in particular the stellar 2009 Engine release Lost And Found. For his first record as a leader, Settles returned to Engine with eight of his compositions and a more conventional ensemble format consisting of Corcoran Holt on bass, Jeremy Carlstedt on drums, Jean Marie Collatin-Faye on percussion and Neil Podgurski on that odd piano.

Settles hadn’t reached this point without being more than well prepared for it. This Washingtonian studied at the Duke Ellington School of The Arts, The New School University in New York City and Howard University, where he received his Master of Music degree. He’s performed with an impressive list of jazz heavies like Curtis Fuller, Gil Scott-Heron, Shirley Horn, Stanley Turrentine, Stanley Clarke, Mickey Roker, Butch Warren and Chad Taylor. Lately, he’s been gigging with Tomas Fujiwara and the Hookup, with whom he participated in yet another recording we lauded here, Actionspeak (2010).

Secret Handshake introduces Settles as neither firmly in the “inside” nor “outside” camp, but with a foot each into both. The “inside” part shows up on that first track “Bison” which is underpinned by Afro-Latin rhythms. Settles’ tenor, always larger than life, is ingratiating, playing synergistically with Podgurski. He gets even more lyrical on the gorgeous “Gardenia,” an Ellingtonian ballad with a classic melody that convinced me this song was already written a long time ago (it wasn’t). “Anti-War March” is paced by a broken marching beat, with both Settles and Podgurski blurring the lines with soling and accompaniment. “Zui Quan” (Youtube below) moves at a strange tempo and a circular four note figure from which Settles peels off and improvises first within the confines of the melody but begins to scream through his sax, hinting at his angular side.

The rest of the fare dives deeper into that side. The quintet is reduced down to a trio of Settles, Carlstedt and Collatin-Faye for “Secret Handshake,” “Soulnimsky,” and “Grandmother Tells of Africa,” leaving the leader as the only tonal voice. He doesn’t wail randomly on these tracks, as easily as he could have done so; he appears to be hearing a logical pattern of chords in his mind and plays a spare representation of it on his sax. “Grandmother” is particularly noteworthy for his keen use of soprano sax and a terrific percussion display by Collatin-Faye. “Earth,” which employs the entire group, goes the farthest into free jazz territory, creating a din of Settles’ strained wails combining with Holt’s bowed bass and Podgurski’s Cecil Taylor-isms to make sounds that are ghoulishly unhinged.

As a sideman for so many others notable leaders, we already had an idea of what kind of sax player Brian Settles is, but Secret Handshake tells us for the first time just what Brian Settles music is like. It’s creative, risk-taking and frolics in both the traditional and whack areas of jazz. Brian Settles’ boldness—from using a piano in an Engine Studios recording session to creating harmonic scenery out of sax-drums-percussion only arrangements—puts him on a collision course with greatness.

Visit Brian Settles’ website.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on,, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at
S. Victor Aaron
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