Beware of album titles that seem to damn with faint praise. Although saxophonist Brandon Wright takes inspiration for the title of his second album from the words of novelist Cormac McCarthy, Journeyman is a term that usually conjures up an image of a reliable, hard-working, solid but uninspiring type of person. All admirable qualities, of course, but hardly earth shattering or applicable to the playing talent of the New York based musician. It’s clear from Wright’s opening phrase on “Shapeshifter” that he’s much, much, more than a reliable worker.
Wright’s playing is strong, fluid and melodic from the start. His long, flowing tenor lines are a pleasure to hear. His debut, Boiling Point (Posi-Tone, 2010), featured trumpeter Alex Sipiaginalongside Wright. On Journeyman, Wright is out front on his own, but he shoulders the extra sonic responsibility with verve and confidence.
“Shapeshifter” establishes not only Wright’s chops, but also the strength of the rhythm section.Donald Edwards‘ driving percussion gives the entire quartet an energy and dynamism. Boris Kozlov‘s bass stays low in the mix but matches Edwards’ swing and power. Pianist David Kikoski—who also appears on Boiling Point—combines stabbing, rich, left-hand chords with intricate single note runs.
Wright’s original compositions are engaging. His description of “Walk Of Shame” as a “funky blues” sums it up neatly: straightforward, immediate and fun. “Illusions Of Light” shows that he can also write a soulful ballad—and deliver an equally soulful saxophone part—while the more aggressive hard bop of “Big Bully” finds Wright and Kikoski producing excellent up-tempo solos underpinned by Koslov and Edwards’ rock solid, driving rhythm.
Boiling Point featured Wright’s take on the Stone Temple Pilots’ rock classic “Interstate Love Song.” On Journeyman, he follows with interpretations of two other rock tunes. Oasis’ Brit Pop standard, “Wonderwall,” gets a swinging, straight-ahead treatment though the original song leant so much on the vocal that an instrumental version lacks a clear focus despite Wright’s tense, upper-register solo. Pearl Jam’s “Better Man,” written by Eddie Vedder, proves to be a more inspired choice. Wright takes the original’s slightly bitter tone and replaces it with a more regretful mood, established by Kikoski’s piano as well as his own tenor saxophone.
A lack of familiarity with McCarthy’s romanticized image might just make some fans wonder whether this album is worth exploring. That would be a mistake. Wright is an imaginative and hard-blowing saxophonist and a creative composer. This Journeyman inspires, and more.