If, as they say, the third time’s the charm, what does that make the fourth time? If it’s concerning a collaboration by tenor saxophonist Ken Fowser and vibraphonist Behn Gillece, it’s even more so the charm.
Top Shelf continues the progression of NYC’s dynamic duo of mainstream with another strong set of originals — stronger yet than on the prior DuoTone — and the freshness from yet another completely different backing band. Steve Einerson (piano), Dezron Douglas (bass) and Rodney Green (drums) are the latest group of vets to round out the Fowser/Gillece sound.
They’ve got one more other thing going for them this time: Michael Dease sits in and shares the Fowser/Gillece front line for half of the tracks. As the heir apparent to Curtis Fuller as straight jazz’s top trombonist, he brings more pizazz, more sonic heft to the already substantial hard bop. That extra dimension often puts songs over the top, like Gillece’s “Slick,” which has both the structure and the suave of John Coltrane’s “Blue Trane.” Evoking a 50’s meeting of jazz giants, Fowser plays with a sackful of soul, Dease effortlessly follows Douglas’ bass walk with his plunger and Gillece swings like Bags. “Stranded In Elizabeth” boasts a vibes/sax/trombone unison line, where on his solo turn, Dease runs through notes with astonishing speed and clarity, and he dazzles again on the Brazilian seasoned “Pequenina.”
For his part, Gillece draws much inspiration from Bobby Hutcherson when he burns on leads for cuts such as “Elizabeth,” the classic pop melody “Ginger Swing” and a faster paced Brazilian strain, “Proximity.” Fowser’s relaxed but soulful style complements his counterpart well and excels on the ballads, where his smoky sweet delivery really makes a tender song like “For The Moment.” The supporting cast often bear more than a passing resemblance to the Jazz Messengers” Green plays that signature circular Art Blakey rhythm for “Unstoppable,” and Einerson plays like a funkier version of Bobby Timmons on “Due Diligence.”
The sax/vibes front line combination isn’t one that’s been tried many times in jazz, but Ken Fowser and Behn Gillece make you wonder that’s so when it sounds so good. Then again, there aren’t many out there who can do it as well as these cats. And they do it better with each time out. Top shelf mainstream jazz, indeed.
Top Shelf is slated for release April 16, by Posi-Tone Records.
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