In these difficult economic times, we would do well to remember that good things can come from adversity, even if the payoff is in the distance. Benny Powell is living proof; born at the beginning of the United States' Great Depression in 1930, he developed into one of the great jazz trombonists during the formative years for jazz music as a popular art form. Now in his late seventies, he is still playing and sharing his love for jazz with new generations.
One of the most enchanting aspects of listening to many elder jazz statesmen like Powell is that we can hear more of the emotional essence of their music now that time has tempered their ability to rely on the technique of their youth. Powell plays on this record with with a simple grace, choosing his notes with providence, as if he knows there are only so many left. Fortunately for us there are enough to make Nextep a gem.
The music on this record is straight ahead but with a lean toward the old-school party and street music of hot-climate places like New Orleans, South Africa, Rio de Janeiro, and Montego Bay. It has that easy feel that magically seems both languorous and lively at the same time. You get the idea from the opening notes of the first track, "Free To Be Me," as Powell opens alone with a clear homage to a New Orleans' street parade - confirmed by the distinctive second line beat when the rest of the band enters. This is authentic stuff; Powell was born in The Big Easy and began playing professionally at the age of 14, so he has this sound in his bones.
The songs delightfully amble along, treating us to a variety of African, Carribean, and Latin-infused beats and sounds. There is only one ballad on the set, but it's a pretty one: Sayuri Gato's "Night, Never End." The fun wraps up with "The Carribean Express" when, as Powell himself wrote in the liner notes, "We leave you on a beach in Montego Bay."
While Powell is obviously the headliner, rest assurred that the rest of the quintet members were chosen because they could comfortably hang with this veteran. Two have been playing with Powell for awhile: TK Blue is big and bluesy on alto saxophone, warm and gentle on flute; Goto is charming, equally musical whether she's comping under a soloist or stretching out on a solo of her own (and her sound is unusual, as if she might be playing an old honky-tonk bar piano). Blue and Goto are also the primary composers for all the music on this record; Blue wrote five of the pieces and Goto added another three. While Bassist Essiet [Okon] Essiet and drummer Billy Hart were "hired hands" for this recording, they are outstanding rhythm section musicians. Both have jazz recording credits stretching back many years - Hart's all the way back to 1956, recording with Miles Davis on Columbia.
Nextep is a very nice jazz record and a worthy addition to the library of any straight-ahead jazz fan.