Vinnie Sperrazza – Juxtaposition (2017)

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Vinnie Sperrazza’s magnificent 2014 debut album Apocryphal caused many, myself included, to see this in-demand session drummer in a new light, “from a notable sideman to a pretty amazing leader himself.” Since that time, Sperrazza has signed on with the higher profile Posi-Tone Records label and followed up with his sophomore album Juxtaposition, due out February 2, 2017.

On the last go around, Sperrazza dropped nonconformist guitarist Brandon Seabrook right into the middle of the mix and created an enigmatic sublimity, and if he had gone that route again, that would have been just dandy by me. But Sperrazza signaled with Juxtaposition that he wasn’t interested in repeating himself, and there’s a lot of virtue in that, too.

Changing it up doesn’t guarantee success, but Sperrazza helped himself by surrounding himself once again with top talent: Chris Speed on tenor sax, Bruce Barth on piano and Peter Brendler on bass. With just a trio of exceptions, these songs are all Sperrazza’s, a set of modern, soulful hard-bop that mostly could almost be mistaken for a circa 1964 Wayne Shorter session that Blue Note suddenly decided to pull out of the vault.

Speed’s angular, yearning tenor — elements of Shorter’s signature sax style — does much to enhance that feel, heard distinctly on the D-flat blues “Chimes,” which swings in the classic style, or on the smoky esoteric Old World melody of “Hellenized.”

Soul and sublimity are the two words that best describe many of these tunes. Buoyed by a calypso rhythm, “St. Jerome” is deceptive in its harmonics: Speed’s sax is playing a melody somewhat incompatible with the one played on Barth’s piano, but the song works because they’re playing within range of each other. “Juxtaposition” is a somber ballad with nearly half of it performed by Speed and Barth only, who work well together. When Sperrazza enters, he does so as non-disruptively as possible, using brushes to accentuate the tender feel coming from sax and piano. “This Night This Song” comes from drumming hero Tony Williams, and Sperrazza transforms it from the stoned-out psychedelic fusion of the 1970 original into this melodic, elegant ballad — uncovering the composing flair in even one of Williams’ more unassuming songs.

Standout individual performances abound, as they should from this crew: “Alter Ego” is a tune from a guy Sperrazza toured with, another late, great Williams, the ex-Jazz Messenger pianist James Williams; Barth’s graceful touch does right by the song’s composer. Though Speed is often blowing soft and sultry, for the modern “One Hour” he cooks convincingly over Sperrazza’s heated rhythms. Based on Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude,” “Solitary” features a Brendler spotlight that reveals an expressive vocabulary on bass. Sperrazza himself commences “Warm Weather” with a brief drum solo prior to kicking off a shuffling swing and a parade of sturdy solos from the other three.

“Say The Secret Word” ends the album just as it begun: with the blues, done up casually and succinctly.

So thus far for the drummer, composer and bandleader Vinnie Sperrazza, it’s two albums, two different approaches, same high quality level jazz. The consistent Juxtaposition justifies keeping Sperrazza on the list of ascendant jazz musicians to watch for.

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