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Will Vinson

Four Forty One

by Ian Mann

March 23, 2020


An intriguing album that I’d recommend wholeheartedly to all fans of contemporary jazz piano, regardless of the fact that it’s released under the name and leadership of a saxophonist.

Will Vinson

“Four Forty One”

(Whirlwind Recordings – WR4752)

Released in January 2020 “Four Forty One” is the eighth album as a leader by the London born, New York based alto saxophonist and composer Will Vinson.

Vinson re-located to New York in 1999 and thus last year represented the twentieth anniversary of his move to the ‘Big Apple’. His two decades in the city have seen him become a leading figure on the NYC music scene and working with many of the contemporary giants of the jazz genre, several of whom appear on this album.

The premise of “Four Forty One” was for Vinson to record with five of his favourite contemporary jazz pianists, Sullivan Fortner, Tigran Hamasayan, Gerald Clayton, Fred Hersch and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and for each pianist to bring their regular bass and drum team to the session in question.

Thus the album finds Vinson collaborating with five different trios as follows;

Sullivan Fortner – piano
Matt Brewer – bass
Obed Calvaire – drums

Tigran Hamasayan – piano
Matt Penman – bass
Billy Hart – drums

Gerald Clayton – piano
Matt Brewer – bass
Clarence Penn – drums

Fred Hersch – piano
Rick Rosato – bass
Jochen Rueckert – drums

Gonzalo Rubalcaba – piano
Larry Grenadier – bass
Eric Harland – drums

As can be seen Vinson moves in exulted company, while the presence of Matt Brewer in two of these five trios is a testament to the bassist’s skill and versatility.

The album was recorded over the course of six separate sessions, the earliest dating back to 2015, but with most taking place during 2017/18. All were recorded on a single day with no formal rehearsal and with a minimum of formal arrangements, an approach designed to generate spontaneity and to allow the personalities of the individual musicians to shine through. The album was then mixed in 2019 for release in early 2020.

The material includes a mix of Vinson originals and a selection of well chosen outside compositions, several of them by pianists, among them Keith Jarrett, Thelonious Monk and John Lewis.

The first combination up to be heard is that of Vinson and Fortner as they tackle the saxophonist’s original composition, the gospel flavoured “Boogaloo”, in duo format. Fortner is given room to stretch out with an extended passage of solo piano that has invited comparisons with Keith Jarrett.
Vinson’s dry but incisive alto is the perfect foil, reminding me sometimes of the playing of the great Lee Konitz.

The pair are then joined by Brewer and Calvaire for the standard “Love Letters”, written by Edward Heyman and Victor Young. The quartet de-construct the song in highly contemporary fashion, while still alluding playfully to the jazz styles of the past. There’s another supremely inventive solo from Fortner, and also from Vinson himself, whose playing becomes increasingly garrulous as his solo progresses. Brewer and Calvaire are similarly imaginative as they move between meters, rarely playing the obvious rhythms. Brewer calms things down with a melodic bass solo but Calvaire is a busy and dynamic presence throughout, first behind Vinson’s increasingly garrulous alto solo and then on something of a feature of his own.

Vinson first met Hamasayan when the pair worked together as part of drummer Ari Hoenig’s band. “He just threw in a whole other tradition that I’d never heard before” enthuses Vinson. Once again saxophonist and pianist appear first as a duo, thus setting a pattern for the album as a whole. A Vinson original, the cunningly titled “Banal Street”, forms the basis for this two hander with Hamasayan’s intensely rhythmic approach underpinning Vinson’s lithe alto sax. Hamasayan’s playing is informed by his Armenian heritage and his unique style can be further appreciated on a dazzling passage of solo piano.

Penman and Hart join for the Keith Jarrett composition “Oasis”. It’s a freely structured interpretation of the piece with Penman on deep, resonant, woody bass taking the first solo. Hart, usually a busy and dynamic drummer, exhibits an admirable restraint as he and Penman provide the floating pulse that underpins the solos of Hamasayan and Vinson, the latter almost sounding like a tenor player at times.

Gerald Clayton is a musician that Vinson has admired for a long time, but never previously worked with. “He’s been on his own journey and I just wanted to play with him!” explains Vinson. Despite its title their duo piece, the Vinson original “I Am James Bond”, proves to be a surprisingly delicate performance with the two musicians immediately striking up a remarkable rapport. Vinson’s gently keening alto initially takes the lead, and as Clayton makes his responses you can almost hear the pianist thinking. Like Vinson’s other pianistic collaborators Clayton too is given the chance to shine, his passage of solo piano characterised by both an underlying rigour and the kind of flowing lyricism that has led to a long running, high profile engagement with the now veteran saxophonist Charles Lloyd.

Brewer returns for the quartet outing, this time partnered by master drummer Clarence Penn. This time the selected piece is a Vinson original titled “Cherry Tree”. The rhythm section establish a gently looping groove which forms the backdrop for Vinson’s long, subtly probing melody lines and Clayton’s thoughtful but expansive piano solo.

Contemporary piano master Fred Hersch is another musician that Vinson has long admired and he was a natural choice for this recording. Hersch also brings elements of Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans to the duo reading of Thelonious Monk’s composition “Work”, plus a hefty slice of Monk himself of course, particularly in the solo piano section. Hersch is widely acclaimed as an interpreter of Monk material and Vinson rises to the challenge of playing with him with great aplomb. This is another sparkling duo performance with a terrific chemistry between the two players.

Bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jochen Rueckert join the group for “KW”, a composition dedicated to the memory of the late, great trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler. The piece was written by pianist Bryn Roberts, a former student of Hersch. It’s a suitably tender tribute that opens with Vinson and Hersch continuing in duo mode, before adding bass and delicately brushed drums.
There’s a delightfully lyrical piano solo from Hersch and an airy alto solo from Vinson, his sax dancing lightly, almost soprano like.  Rosato adds a brief, but melodic double bass cameo. Both Roberts’ writing and the quartet’s performance do Wheeler proud.

Finally we hear the Cuban born pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Of the five pianists appearing on this album he’s the one Vinson has worked with most frequently, with each musician having worked as a member of the others’ band. Vinson has described Rubalcaba as “a mentor” and as “the greatest pianist alive, he just had to be on this record!”

Rubalcaba is famed for the density and complexity of his playing but on the duo piece, Vinson’s “The Way To You”, the performance is kept deliberately sparse and lyrical. It’s a warm, intimate ballad performance that emphasises the gentler side of Rubalcaba’s playing, just one facet of his remarkable versatility. This item was recorded back in 2015, exactly five years before the release of the album, and presumably represents the seed for the entire project.

Things hot up with “That Happened”, a Vinson contrafact based upon the standard “It Could Happen To You”. Here bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Eric Harland join the proceedings to give a powerful, propulsive, polyrhythmic backdrop to the bravura soloing of Vinson and Rubalcaba. Grenadier also weighs in with an impressive solo of his own, effectively kicking things off. Despite being based on a standard the piece has an urgent, contemporary feel and combines a restless energy with a formidable musical sophistication.

The final track on the record can perhaps be regarded as something of a ‘bonus’ track as Vinson and Fortner come together again on a version of the composition “Milestones”, written by MJQ pianist John Lewis. This vivacious duo performance, led off by Vinson, finds Fortner embracing a variety of jazz styles during the piece. “He’s a walking encyclopaedia” enthuses Vinson, “When we did ‘Milestones’ I didn’t even tell him what we were going to play and he just jumped in and flipped seamlessly through the whole history of piano”.

“Four Forty One” is an intriguing album. Although led by a saxophonist there’s very much the feeling that this is essentially a “piano record”. Vinson describes his role on the album as “bystander and participant at the same time”. He admits to being a “frustrated pianist” and cites Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans as primary influences. As a composer Vinson writes at the piano and describes his love of the instrument thus;
“At heart I am a frustrated pianist. It may be on the saxophone that I’ve found a voice, but it’s the piano that has captivated, inspired me and eluded me my whole life. This project is a dream come true.”

The duo followed by quartet format works well throughout with each of the five pianists stamping his own authority of the proceedings, but without disrupting the flow of the album as a whole. As leader Vinson is a capable, malleable and even humble, shaping his own playing to suit each musician and each given situation.

Reading back through this review I’m conscious that I’ve probably written more about the five piano players than I have about the leader, but I suspect that Vinson may even prefer it that way. Certainly it’s an album that I’d recommend wholeheartedly to all fans of contemporary jazz piano, regardless of the fact that it’s released under the name and leadership of a saxophonist.

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