Cheek Fans Confounded, "Why Isn't This Guy HUGE?!"
Many jazz bloggers have listed Chris Cheek's Blues Cruise in their Top Ten of 2005. This reviewer raises it to Top Five. There is absolutely no good reason why Chris Cheek isn't better known, particularly when you consider his backing band for the last two records is the Brad Mehldau Trio. That's right: Mehldau backs-up Cheek.
Cheek grew up playing sax in St. Louis, graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston, and went on to become a young lion on the 1990s New York City scene. He's played a supporting role in more than 50 recordings. He contributed significantly to Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band, Argentiniean composer Guillermo Klein's Los Guachos, Kurt Rosenwinkle, Seamus Blake's Bloomdaddies, Stephan Crump, Jen Chapin, and pianist David Berkman's Communication Theory. Blues Cruise is Cheek's fourth recording as leader. Fans who "discovered" Cheek through his involvement with Paul Motian have been buying anything he touches since, sight unseen.
Chris Cheek's tenor sax tone is at once advanced and accessible; no small feat in a world where even many jazz fans believe everything's been done. He's no slouch on the alto and soprano saxes either. His vibrato is pervasive, but subtle and expertly controlled. Fans rave about Cheek's profound musical understanding: he selects just the right notes, arranged in efficient phrases, with a deep, lyrical voicing. Cheek composed five of these nine songs, and you'll hear them overshadow the standards. His jazz conception draws upon elements of swing, blues, folk, country, Spanish, Brazilian, and Western classical music.
The CD booklet is happily devoid of Mehldau's ubiquitous diatribe, but there are unfortunately no liner notes whatsoever. Fine artists often cringe when asked to explain themselves, but it would be nice to have a little something to read. Listeners will have to draw their own conclusions when it comes to compositional context. No problem.
Jazz pianist Brad Mehldau has earned considerable street-credibility with the iTunes kids, thanks to his Radiohead and Beatles covers, exclusive downloads, and streaming music videos. The alt-rock influence is noticeable in Mehldau's Fender Rhodes experimentation, particularly on the title track.
The set starts out swinging. "Flamingo" is best known as an Ellington standard, but other bands have kept it popular, including Gene Krupa's orchestra, Jimmie Lunceford, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz, and Benny Carter. Incidentally, R&B altoist Earl Bostic's version appears on the Honkin' and Screamin' Saxophone compilation and the Rolling Stones' own Artist's Choice CD. Cheek's version of "Flamingo" neither honks nor screams, but is stunning in its own way. "Low Key Lightly" is another beautiful Ellington tune with a relaxed tempo. Cheek's "Coo" is sweet and somewhat reminiscent of Ornette Coleman at his most coherent. Mehldau has switched to Fender Rhodes, imbuing the track with a great new-meets-old vibe, ala Miles' Filles de Killemanjaro. "Squirrelling" is an upbeat and uplifting romp that really, really works. There is no doubt these four men operate like an elegantly engineered machine.
Cheek also covers "Song of India" which was one of Tommy Dorsey's famous V-Discs during World War II, and originally part of Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's 1898 opera, Sadko. The song begins with a high and lonesome cry on soprano sax which eventually locks into an exquisite rhythm. A Columbia University Press encyclopedia praises Rimsky-Korsakov's "romantic exoticism and mastery of orchestral color." The same could be said about Chris Cheek.
On "Falling" the trio sets Cheek's solo over a hypnotic Afro-cuban pulse. Cheek's compositions are like dark chocolate or smooth Scotch: complex and delicious. "Blues Cruise" is a slow brushed-snare shuffle which showcases each musician's improvisational abilities. Only true experts can play this well, this slow. The song "John Denver" is as energetic, youthful, and sincere as its namesake. On an album mostly comprised of relaxed ballads, drummer Jorge Rossy finally gets to stretch out a bit, and Larry Grenadier's bass solo will blow your mind. "Sweetheart Tree" is a Henry Mancini soundtrack to the 1965 film "The Great Race." The original song featured cheesy lyrics by Johnny Mercer. Cheek knows a good song when he hears it, even if people have typically derided it as easy-listening or lounge music. His cover is sentimental but not sappy. In this way, and so many others, Cheek succeeds marvelously where many musicians have failed.
Blues Cruise was recorded by James Farber at the majestic Avatar Studios in Manhattan. Farber is the multiple Grammy-award-winning engineer revered for his work with Dave Holland, Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau, Michael Brecker, Joshua Redman, Stanley Jordan, John Scofield, Bill Frisell, James Taylor, and many others. The entire project was recorded live to 2-track, which means everyone had to nail it on the same take; no overdubs, no cut-and-paste later. Isn't that the way jazz should be?
Thanks again to Jordi Pujol of Fresh Sound New Talent Records for taking upon himself the task of documenting essential musicians like Chris Cheek! To think that Cheek and others like him continue to fall through the cracks of major representation is troubling indeed. FSNT may lack mass marketing and name recognition, but they spend money where it's most important: producing top-notch recordings of essential music. In our global marketplace, even Pujol's Spanish label is only a few clicks away.
Call it what you want: 5 stars, two thumbs up, desert island disc.... but Blues Cruise is undoubtedly one the year's best releases.
-David Seymour is a jazz journalist in Saint Louis, Missouri, USA.