The heading on the press release for drummer Stockton Helbing’s debut album Lodestar poses the question "Who is Stockton Helbing?" and goes on to give a brief answer in the form of a short bio. But I think a better question might be why haven’t we heard about him sooner? This remarkable album is a recording of both great depth and great maturity, quite a feat from a leader barely 25-years-old at the time of the recording.
Though this is my first exposure to Helbing’s music, he’s had considerable experience, most notably as the drummer for the legendary jazz trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. He started playing drums at the age of 10 and studied with Kirk Chapman and Jim Hall before being granted a scholarship to attend the University of North Texas to study with Ed Soph. He graduated in 2003 and has already traveled the world playing with the likes of Joe Lovano, Arturo Sandoval and Dianne Schuur, to name but a few.
For his first recording, Helbing brought together an amazingly talented group of musicians: Ken Edwards on trumpet and flugelhorn, Tom Luer on tenor sax, Noel Johnston on guitar and Brian Mulholland on bass. The press release describes Lodestar as blending the creativity of jazz with the accessibility of pop. That’s an apt description, although make no mistake about it, this is a jazz album through and through. When I first heard it, it immediately reminded me of the Miles Davis band during the Wayne Shorter period. The songs are lush and complex, yet they make liberal use of space and dynamics. The purpose of the arrangements seem to be to allow the musicians to serve the music, rather than the other way around, which is quite a refreshing approach.
For example, on the opening tune, "Sign Of The Times," the horns play on the head, but only the bass solos. On "What Could Be, What Has Been" the entire ensemble plays the head, a simple, repeated melodic riff, but only the guitar solos. However, everyone gets more than enough opportunity to shine on some of the other tunes and shine they all do. The solos are consistently inventive and lyrical, full of twists and turns that surprise and delight. Only three of the ten songs were penned by band members - Johnston’s "Stocktorb" and Luer’s "Hey Kid, I’m A Computer" and "Harrell’s Herald" - but they all seem tailor made for this band and this album, and complement each other extremely well.
This is music that begs to be listened to over and over again, as the dense harmonies and striking chord progressions seem to reveal a little more of themselves with each revisit. A very exciting debut release.