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Early Last Morning by Steve Fentriss

Steve Fentriss was 16 years old when he went into the studio to lay down tracks for this masterwork. At 17 he was named a Clifford Brown/Stan Getz Fellow by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts and the International Association of Jazz Educators. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is an extraordinary recording at any age or level of experience. Tony Williams was 17 when Miles Davis hired him in 1962, but prodigies just don’t come along that often. And make no mistake, this is the work of a young man with an unlimited future in front of him. Like the very young Tony Williams, the very young Steve Fentriss is an exceptionally gifted drummer who brings extraordinary chops to the stage. Unlike the young Tony Williams, young Steve Fentriss is also a mature, intelligent and talented composer capable of creating well crafted and thoroughly enjoyable jazz pieces that belie his youth. On his debut recording, which he also co-produced with Kevin Rhodes, the combination of percussive expertise and compositional maturity speak well of Fentriss’ intelligence and emotional breadth.

The opening "Panoramic Pictures" witnesses the drummer’s full command of his instrument and his ability to paint a wide swatch of tonal colors in the midst of frequent tempo changes. Cymbals and drums are played deftly with strength and a strong sense of nuance before stepping back for a delicious trumpet solo from Paul Finkbeiner. Pianist Mark Kieswetter and bassist (and label owner) Paul Keller dialogue a bit before Finkbeiner returns with another solo on the heels of a delightful piano spot. Under these comes the drummer who offers clever full kit work leading back to the head. This is superb writing. The title piece opens metronomically with drums, bass and piano, over which Vincent York plays an engaging alto. The rhythm and horn are well balanced and work well in conjunction and off of each other. Kieswetter is especially riveting here, playing lines that are as powerful as they are melodic. Kenny Wheeler’s "Smatta," one of two tunes from an outside source, is played beautifully by trumpet and trombone, followed by lush piano and solos by each of the horn players. On "Two Like a Song" Finkbeiner plays Woody Shaw-like trumpet, Chris Smith delivers a superb trombone solo, and Paul Keller offers excellent bass work behind Kieswetter’s stellar piano. The combinations are well thought out and well executed. Throughout are Fentriss’ tastefully accentuated drums.

"Marcella" reminds of a mid-60s Joe Henderson tune, with its post-bop flavor and coloration. The opening bass solo is beautiful and beautifully complimented by the drummer. This is followed by a well structured piano solo, under which Steve Fentriss drives hard before stepping out to take a Blakey-ish solo before the trumpet blasts back to trade fours with the drummer. Classic. "Since Then" is the romantic centerpiece of the disc. Kieswetter’s beautiful, reflective piano, Finkbeiner’s flugelhorn sketch, another wonderful Keller bass solo and a breathtaking flugelhorn to take it out. A simple song form, perhaps, but the maturity that composer Fentriss brings to the piece takes it beyond cliché. Tom Harrell’s "April Mist" is a showpiece for trumpeter Finkbeiner that benefits from Fentriss’ command of cymbals and rims and a lively piano solo.

Perhaps the standout piece of the collection is the original "Could Go Either Way." Reminiscent of McCoy Tyner, compositionally as well as in Kieswetter’s performance, this is framed splendidly by the drummer, who proves himself a master of tonal coloration. Keller is shown to be a master of meter and a masterful bassist. His solo is well crafted and delightfully rendered before making way for a Fentriss solo. On "The Fink Factor," on which Chris Smith shares credit for arranging, Finkbeiner plays out of the Miles Davis bag and Smith and York turn in impressive solo spots. Again, the composition and the arrangement are fantastic, and the playing by all is flawless with crisp and clean trumpet/ trombone work and hot alto.

The final and longest piece on the collection speaks well of the young drummer/composer's maturity. "Alexa's Thing" is an extended showcase for Steve Fentriss & the pianist. It shines a favorable light on the composer, as well. Fentriss is brilliant here, playing quietly, introspectively at one minute, then nearly atonal to cinematic at others. It begs the question: "How could a teenaged drummer possibly write a piece of such beauty, such passion, such precision?" It doesn't hurt to have the composition performed by such a brilliant pianist, of course. This is a simply awesome piece of writing and performance. The young man does not fail to amaze.

Early Last Morning is an exceptional debut disc by a gifted young man to keep an ear on. Very highly recommended.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Steve Fentriss
  • CD Title: Early Last Morning
  • Genre: Straight-Ahead / Classic
  • Year Released: 2004
  • Record Label: PKO
  • Rating: Four Stars
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