Inside Benjamin Drazen is an old soul, nestling cheek-by-jowl in a fertile mind, brimful with new ideas that undulate and flow beautifully from his alto saxophone. That he is able to take control of this force, and harness its power to open a virtual door to the temple of his muses—running the gamut of saxophonists from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, and almost certainly including the mighty Johnny Hodges—speaks volumes about his mature craftsmanship. He has something else that shines throughout the rather introspective Inner Flights: a vortex of energy that bursts through the music like a gathering flood, inhabiting both the hearts and minds of anyone who falls under his spell.
The album opens with “Mr. Twilight,” a scorching modal romp that recalls, at times, Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” for all of its unbridled energy, and the wall of sound that passes through Drazen’s hands, as well as pianist Jon Davis, bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Eric McPherson. But it is Drazen who lights up the chart, with the dancing phrases and lines that dapple his solo. On this and other charts, the saxophonist shows himself to be a sublime intellect, creating highly literate musical excursions, navigating with lively expression and feeling. He is also capable of being playful, as his composition, “Monkish,” suggests, although this chart finds Davis playing the more stellar role, dazzling with his two-handed technique, as well as a history lesson in pianism, from stride to contemporary atonalism.
Drazen’s premier work, in terms of composition, seems to be more inward-looking, including the achingly beautiful “Prayer for Brothers Gone By” and the lilting “Neeney’s Waltz,” which the saxophonist absolutely lights up with a solo that unfolds in diaphanous swirls, and is a seemingly unstoppable flow of ideas belying sheer genius. His reading of Jimmy Van Heusen’s classic, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” takes after a version that Bud Powellmade famous at Massey Hall, Toronto in 1955. This is an elementally sad version, showing Drazen to be unafraid of wearing his emotions on his proverbial sleeve.
Although he plays mainly alto saxophone, Drazen can also be heard on soprano on the title track. His handling of the higher pitched horn is wry, playing with an almost reverential notion that it belongs in elite circles, including not just Coltrane, but a handful of giants from Sidney Bechet to Steve Lacy and Wayne Shorter. Drazen chooses to add depth and color on a couple of charts, by overdubbing tracks with short bursts on tenor. However, it is on the alto that Drazen displays his finest mastery of tone and texture. His work on this impressive album shows him to daub his music from a truly wide palette of not just colors, but sheer creative ideas. All of this makes for brilliant inner flights.