Jeff Antoniuk, is a young Canadian-born saxophonist whose gruff, somewhat raw tone pleasantly recalls Booker Ervin’s. He’s also a music educator with advanced degrees in ethnomusicology and saxophone performance from North Texas State. Instead of being merely another solid, personality-free, CV-padding acoustic jazz CD, "Here Today" presents us with first-rate original tunes played in a very inspired fashion by (gasp!) a tightly-focused, actively gigging quartet. Trumpeter Dave Ballou augments the group on three tracks, and helps the band kick the free-boppish ‘Blues for J. D. Salinger’ into the stratosphere.
There’s a slightly left-of-center quality to much of the music on "Here Today" that really keeps me interested. Drummer Tony Martucci proves to be the primary force behind this refreshingly self-effacing quirkiness. His pleasure in odd percussive colors, such as a particularly trashy sounding Chinese cymbal, come right to the fore on the first track. He provides particularly dynamic counterpoint to the horn solos and collective improv on ‘Blues for J. D. Salinger’, and his congas and small percussion add an extra dimension to the atmospheric modal soul of ‘Man’s Best Friend’. Pianist Wade Beach is a subtle, economical player whose somewhat cerebral solos provide contrast to Antoniuk’s heated tenor and soprano saxophone improvisations.
Antoniuk’s original compositions are first-rate, and reflect a deep understanding of the music of the mid- to late-20th Century without slavish imitation. ‘Springfield’ has a goofy, manic feel and a recurring motif that comes close to quoting Thelonious Monk’s ‘Misterioso’. Similarly, the melody of ‘Rain’ seems to refer to Oliver Nelson’s ‘Stolen Moments’ before heading off in a completely different direction. Both ‘Noah’s Little Play Song’ and the title track are gentle, folk-inflected contemporary jazz ballads, though the quartet’s playing on both remains taut and vital. The closer - ‘Back to Bowie’ - is a bluesy burner that would have fit comfortably in Art Blakey’s book back in the late 60s. The band does a really nice job with Monk’s fiendishly difficult ‘Four In One’.
The music on Jeff Antoniuk’s debut CD with his group, Jazz Update, is consistently a cut above what I expect to hear from young University-educated jazz musicians. The fact that Antoniuk and his quartet are an actively-gigging, road-tested unit is no small factor in their artistic success. Their grit, determination, and love for the music comes through in no uncertain terms on "Here Today".