When Stan Killian came out with Unified a couple of years back, it didn’t knock me back in one certain way, it knocked me back in many ways. Killian brought a stout but sensitive tenor saxophone to compositions he crafted with canny detail, but also pleasing to the ear. He topped it off by surrounding himself with a stellar cast of musicians. All this made Unified one of my very favorite modern and mainstream jazz records of that year.
Evoke, out tomorrow, is Killian’s encore to that solid record, and he takes no sharp changes in direction…not that any was needed. Out are the high profile sparring partners Roy Hargrove and Jeremy Pelt, and Dave Binney, and in is his working band for every track. As these are the guys who helped get his tunes into recording shape through steady gigs at NYC’s 55 Bar, what might be lost in diversity of playing styles is more than made up in a gain in cohesiveness, but this remains a Stan Killian album through and through.
Benito Gonzalez, who’s toured and recorded extensively with Kenny Garrett, returns from Unified, and drummer McClenty Hunter and bassist Corcoran Holt are now on board full time. That leaves guitarist and fellow Texas native Mike Moreno (Joshua Redman Elastic Band, Lizz Wright, Nicholas Payton, Me’Shell N’Degeocello, Terence Blanchard, Greg Osby, Wynton Marsalis) as the key new addition, and his airy and melodic lines goes down so easy, providing the right contrast to Killian’s burly tone. Moreno fully buys into the leader’s multifaceted, mellifluous and modern music design.
Killian’s seven new songs pick up where he left off on that lofty last album, piecing together harmonic ideas with many moving parts into coherent, amicable pieces; “Subterranean Melody, “Echolalic” and “Observation” are prime examples of this mature and alluring method. It’s not a conception album per se, but themed around his reflection on the sights and especially sounds Killian has picked up by his adopted New York City environs.
“Subterranean Melody” is a 7/4 construction alternating with a 4/4 secondary segment, and Killian’s tenor sax is commanding, deep but also sensitive. He impresses just as well on “Kirby,” which has a theme that ends each chorus with a four chord punctuation. With “Evoke,” he’s projecting Illinois Jacquet into a modernistic ballad, and it’s just as soulful and affecting. On the crisp, jazz walk of “Beekman33,” which could easily be mistaken for some tune from the classic Blue Note era, Killian undertakes sublime Joe Henderson articulations. Perhaps most astonishing is how he maneuvers so seamlessly between quicker and softer sections of “Observation,” pushed along so precisely by the Holt/Hunter rhythm section.
Moreno has plenty of highlights, too, sizzling on “Observation” as well, executing a tasteful finger picked solo on “Beekman33″ and soaring with a light, melodic touch over the snaky Latin rhythms of “Hindu.” Gonzalez only hints at his South American roots, even on “Hindu,” but it’s enough to give him a distinctive style that also owes much to Herbie Hancock. He puts in an assertive solo on “Echolalic,” and is crisp, relaxed and in the pocket on “Beekman33.” Hunter plays a key role in managing with Holt all the tempo and signature change-ups, also delivering an Elvin Jones styled solo from behind the front line near the end of “Beekman33.”
Once again, Stan Killian proves there is still a lot of vitality and freshness left in mainstream jazz, and few of his generation are doing it as well as he is. Evoke is a worthy companion to Unified, which means it’s exceptional, too. Stan Killian is a name to remember, because his saxophone and his songs are hard to forget.