Toronto saxophonist Pete Mills takes to his debut on Cellar Live Records with polish and swing. Together with Pete McCann (guitars), Erik Augis (piano), Martin Wind (bass), and Matt Wilson (drums), he puts together a record that is both traditional and exuberantly modern. Sweet Shadow features an impressive line-up of 14 tracks, nine of which are originals and two of which are free-form duos.
Mills finds himself walking a fresh path through a genre that is often inhabited by the shadows of past greats, but rather than bemoaning the situation he embraces it. The “sweetness” found in the history of jazz and the many titans who crafted and elevated the art form is found in his compositions and in his playing.
The Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn piece “The Star Crossed Lovers” is a perfect example of Mills’ affection for the past. He treats this with a straight eighth feel and dedicates the tune to his father. Gently kissed by McCann’s velvety acoustic guitar and highlighted by Wind’s pensive playing, this rendition is soft and warm in all the right places. A light version of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” is more evidence. Interestingly, Wind carves out a bowed bass solo right near the kickoff and leads into a bouncy, sparkling tune that calls to mind Oscar Peterson.
The originals on Sweet Shadow reveal more. Album opener “Shiner” is an opportunity for Mills, Augis and McCann to fire away over a perky foundation laid by the rhythm section. And “The Snagel” is an interesting piece based on a favorite treat from the Denison University coffee house, only this time it comes with a scorching guitar solo.
Mills’ playing is sharp throughout Sweet Shadow, but you really get the sense that he’s playing for the team. Each piece is constructed with the group in mind. While he does take the opportunity to blare away on some solos, the captivating thing about this recording is how much of it is spread out to the rest of the collective. “New School” is an engaging instance of this collaborative sensibility. Mills carves out some strong lines initially over a minor blues, but the finish is all up to Wind and Wilson.
Sweet Shadow is an engaging and enjoyable album, one that benefits from the selfless artistry of Mills and the group effort put in by a crackerjack outfit with energy and swing to spare.