These Are Them
is drummer Al Ashley’s recording debut as a leader, and a fine debut it is. Joining him in this bass-less quartet are David Liebman on tenor and soprano saxophones, Rick Stone on guitar and Oliver Von Esson on organ. Ashley simply could not have put together a nicer sounding band. The press release states that Stone and Von Esson are relative newcomers, as compared to the more seasoned Ashley and Liebman. I suppose that’s true, considering the fact that the esteemed drummer and sax player both have over 30 years of pro experience behind them. But the guitarist and organist are not newbies by any stretch of the imagination. Stone, while not yet widely known, has been a fixture on the New York scene since the ‘80s and has released several albums as a leader. Von Esson, a native of Germany, has been living and playing in New York since 1989 and spent more than two years as the after hours house pianist at the Blue Note jazz club. So while there is some difference in the degree of experience between these four musicians, you wouldn’t know it by listening to this disc. They all display the same degree of formidable musicianship - not only in their playing, but also in their ability to listen to each other, which is at least as important in a band, if not more so.
This is essentially a hard bop outing, consisting of all original tunes penned by members of the band - three from Ashley, two from Von Esson and one each from Stone and Liebman. The album opens with Ashley’s composition "Blue Note," a beautiful mid-tempo number. After listening to a few moments of this track it’s immediately clear why Ashley has been the drummer of choice over the years for jazz greats such as Teddy Wilson, Milt Jackson, Al Cohn, Michael Brecker and Miraslov Vitous. Not only does he play deep in the pocket with a great sense of swing, he’s also extremely tasteful - he never overplays and knows exactly how to incorporate accents in just the right places to keep the music interesting. Liebman plays the head on this one and digs right into the first solo. One of best saxophonists playing today (and also a renowned music educator), he plays with a strong, vibrant tone. His approach displays a sureness and, for lack of a better word, confidence, that you don’t find in many saxophonists of this era.
The title track, "These Are Them" (another Ashley original), is a samba that Stone takes the first solo on. He has a beautiful guitar sound and style that reminds me a bit of early Kenny Burrell. He plays a spirited solo and then comps wonderfully under Von Esson’s equally impressive improvisations. Liebman, on soprano, takes the last solo, during which he reaches up into the altissimo register of the horn, something that few can do well on soprano, especially while staying perfectly in tune.
They slow things down a bit on the bluesy third track, Von Esson’s "Perfect Day," which captures the spirit of a laid-back afternoon of ease and leisure. The next track, another Von Esson original, is a waltz entitled "The Other Time". It has an intriguing melody and the head consists of two parts - one part played by Von Esson on organ and the other by Liebman on soprano sax. Von Esson’s solo on this track is especially nice.
The one composition contributed by Stone is "Relative Minority," which takes its title from the song’s harmonic movement (through relative minors). It’s a great arrangement of a great tune. Liebman really cuts up on tenor here, making full use of the entire range of the horn. "Fats Write" is a tune that Ashley wrote and dedicated to his friend and mentor, the late Fats Wright, a legendary pianist/organist that played with greats like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. It manages to sound both classic and modern at the same time.
The final track on this disc was written by Liebman. It is called "Look At What We Do To Ourselves," a previously unrecorded piece written by the saxophonist in response to the human error responsible for the terrible nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. Fittingly, it evokes feelings of menace and danger, but laced with a slight undertone of hope and optimism.
This is a wonderful debut album for Ashley - great songs, great musicianship and a band that really seems to enjoy playing together. It was well worth waiting 30 years for. I just hope we don’t have to wait that long for the next one!