Saxophonist Rob Wagner made New Orleans his home in the early 90s and firmly established a reputation as one of the very finest reedmen in the Crescent City - or anywhere else for that matter. He now has 4 CDs worth of his own material to prove it, all on Benjamin Lyons’ excellent, home-grown Valid label. The saxophone - bass - drums trio appears to be Wagner’s favorite vehicle for self-expression - he’s an energetic, rangy player with a big sound whose solos can take off in all sorts of delightfully unexpected directions. Wagner’s sound hearkens back to players like Booker Ervin, George Adams, Archie Shepp, and Joe Henderson - highly-skilled, super-advanced reedmen with a personal sound who kept one foot in the the jazz tradition while stepping forward with the other into the unknown.
Hurricane Katrina ultimately forced Wagner to make the big move New York, though he returned to the Big Easy to record Trio with fellow New Orleans resident Nobu Ozaki and über-drummer Hamid Drake, who flew down from Chicago for the occasion. Ozaki is also a drummer, and his experience with drums certainly illumines his bass playing - his interaction with Drake throughout Trio is downright uncanny. Drake is the perfect drummer for Wagner - he is that rare musician who has good chemistry with pretty much everyone he plays with. He can find the freedom in a groove, and find the groove when interacting spontaneously. With Wagner he just takes off. You can almost feel the sparks flying!
Judging from their titles, several of the tunes on Trio come out of Wagner’s despair at the destruction and subsequent criminal neglect of New Orleans and her people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Lyons’ wry liner notes recount how the hurricane itself was a sort of driving force behind this recording - both literally and figuratively. "Desoparia".... is an urgent 6/8 gallop, with Wagner’s soprano desperately wailing like a lone siren through ruined streets lined with collapsed homes. Drake’s frame drum opens "Where is Home?" on a meditative note and duets with Wagner’s searching, somewhat Klezmer-sounding clarinet before Ozaki adds his purposeful momentum to the piece. "Shock, Awe, Sham, Shame" also opens with a drum solo - this time Drake is on the trap set - followed by a scintillating duet with Wagner. The piece simmers down as Ozaki enters, only to reignite into something that resembles Sonny Rollins’ classic "East Broadway Run Down". A magnetic, oddly syncopated bass ostinato forms the basis of "Freedumb", around which Drake’s frame drum and Wagner’s soprano dance, patter, and speculate. Ozaki gets a particularly nice solo in on this piece.
The rest of this excellent CD is no less scintillating. Drake turns "Childhood Memory" into a tour de force of stacked, staggered, and layered polyrhythms, Wagner’s tenor sings out gloriously on "Penumbra", and the trio’s collective work on "Plutino" suggests that they could easily do a whole CD’s worth of smoky soul ballads. Rob Wagner is a force to be reckoned with in modern jazz, and this is his most varied and deepest recording yet. Absolutely essential.