Kendall Moore – Focus (2014)

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Miami-based trombonist, arranger and composer Kendall Moore is now also “recording artist” with his debut release Focus. Every year there are hundreds if not thousands of debut jazz releases and a handful of them stand out as a “nice try” or “shows potential.” Not Moore, because Focus belongs in the rarer debut category of “fully developed talent and musical vision.”

Moore’s forte is to make jazz sound fresh and gets it done within the confines of mainstream jazz, something that’s increasingly hard to pull off. Sure, Moore’s got fine technique on his trombone, a pure, round tone in the style of Curtis Fuller and he pens soul-jazz tunes that please on casual listens and reveal intricacies on closer listens. But the knockout punches land on the arrangements.

That’s instantly clear from the imaginative arrangement of Bill Evans’ and Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green.” Moore deftly melds rhythm with harmony in a very appealing way by conjuring up a festive, Brazilian undercurrent churning against solemn melody, and during the solo break, his trombone forcefully reconciles the two forces. He gets everyone in his base sextet involved in forging the give-and-take: a vigorous rhythm section comprising of Gary Thomas and Michael Piolet contrasted by graceful flowing chords from pianist Angelo Versace, the “Brazil” flavor coming by way of the soft, fluid notes of Tim Jago and harmony supplied by saxophonist Mark Small.

Moore again masterfully pulls off folding a festive rhythm into a fetching minor key harmony with “Focus,” only this time the melody is his own. Small surfaces to deliver a marvelous tenor sax solo, playing off of Piolet’s prodding drums. Next up is a delicate ballad “Peaceful” that has that classic pop affection, and topped off by the leader’s soulful, heartfelt solo. Small enjoins him and takes over with saxophone remarks that continue the sentiment. Another side is shown through another ballad, “Fellowship,” which not only feels inspired by Wayne Shorter’s composing style, it specifically conjures up “Infant Eyes.” Jago’s guitar effectively acts as third horn on this mildly folk-styled tune that features Thomas’s lyrical bass solo. Perhaps the title is coincidental, but this song wouldn’t be out of place on a Brian Blade Fellowship record.

For three tracks, the sextet expands to an octet via the addition of alto saxophonist Pat Seymour and Chicago’s rising star on trumpet, Marquis Hill. On the first of these, “Road Less Traveled” scores with polished chord changes and an eight-man setting combines the nimbleness of a small combo with the majesty of a big band, like Coltrane did with Blue Trane. Hill capitalizes on that urbane melody with thoughtful stylings.

Only at the end does Moore perform his second cover, “It Could Happen To You.” He goes the opposite direction from the approach taken with “Blue In Green” by making this song an intimate trombone/bass/brushes trio depiction, proving that Moore can do much with little, too.

This is how you do mainstream jazz, friends. Focus is another album by a jazz newcomer but this time, the rookie’s got it all together on the first try.

Visit Kendall Moore’s website for more info.

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