By J HUNTER
Jazz is like the human body. It needs fresh air, constant activity and a steady of nutrients to stay hale and hearty. Conversely, if all the genre does is sit in a comfy chair and try to live on what came before, it becomes sedentary, incurious and—ultimately—self destructive. Fortunately, the young keep jazz active and alive. Here are a few examples of the new kids on the block. past a first impression can be tough, but sometimes that’s what has to happen in order to get the full measure of a musician. That’s the hill that has to be climbed to get a complete sense of reed player Sarah Manning‘s debut,Dandelion Clock. Don’t worry, though—the ascent is only a little steep.
Manning opens with Jimmy Rowles‘ “The Peacocks,” which is a steep hill to climb in and of itself. Saxophonist Stan Getz‘s prototypical version was wrapped so tightly inside a mournful, romantic longing, it could have been used to score Roman Polanski’s film noir homage, Chinatown. Although pianist Art Hirahara and bassist Linda Oh add touches of mystery and drama to the piece, Manning simply pumps up the volume and shows how strong she can bring it. Unfortunately, this approach is the equivalent of trying to kill a butterfly with a hammer. It also discounts the vulnerability—however fleeting—in Rowles’ protagonist. There’s no question Manning’s got the chops, but this was the wrong way to show them off.
If Manning had spent the rest of the disc going pedal-to-the-metal, this review would be a lot more painful. But once Manning starts playing her own material, her comfort zone widens noticeably. She dances with assurance on the waltzing “Marble,” taking her alto sax into soprano territory and operating with great ease. “Through The Keyhole” offers a peek into a world that’s both exciting and intriguing, and Manning laces the title track (inspired by a Mary K. Robinson poem) with an Eastern tone that expands the piece’s exotic qualities. The lost-love song “Habersham Street” has the approach and the tone “Peacocks” could have used, but the track is so good that past missteps can be forgiven.
While Manning’s partners made “Peacocks” passable, the rest of their performances make Dandelion something to stick with. Hirahara’s piano offers both support and counterpoint to Manning’s reedwork; his eloquent solo on “Habersham” is as enticing as the blazing fire he brings to “Phoenix Song.” Oh’s bass lines are thick as a brick, with the kind of command that’s more readily associated with more experienced players. “Crossing, Waiting” may be a trio piece (Hirahara lays out on this track), but Oh’s monumental aggression makes Manning superfluous and inspires drummer Kirk Struve to kick it up six or seven notches.
As previously noted, Sarah Manning’s got the tools, but it takes a while to see her depth and potential. Patience is a rare commodity these days, but that’s what’s needed to get to the really good stuff on Dandelion Clock.
Visit Sarah Manning on the web.