Sophomore jinx, what’s that? Well, it’s that crippling spell that falls upon many promising artists, right after they become a media’s darling due to a splendid debut, thus creating a storm of hype and nail-biting anxiety for a follow-up. Of course, this type of "15-minutes of fame" happens more in the pop, American Idol-centric world than in jazz and classical music, where it’s understood that great artistry develops overtime, not in the quick "Easy Bake" ovens of PR machines and studio genies.
Still, anxiety can fall upon even the most grounded of striving jazz artists to some degree. And while Sean Jones wasn’t a media’s darling in the same bizarre sense of say, 50 Cent or Britney Spears, the trumpeter, composer, bandleader and composer did delight more than a few jazz critics with his remarkable debut, "Eternal Journey."
Jones’ debut was steeped heavily in 21st century modern bop in which he led a sterling ensemble, composed of alto saxophonist and flutist Tia Fuller, bassist Charles Fambrough, drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr., and Orrin Evans and Mulgrew Miller, alternating on piano, through an intoxicating set of originals and standards. Jones’ rich, full-bodied tone, lucid improvisations and passionate nuances demonstrated a maturity well beyond his then-25-years.
And his original compositions, such as "The Serpent," "John," and "At the Last Minute" proved him to be a savvy if not versatile writer with a gift for penning cogent melodies, intriguing harmonies and elastic rhythms that provide plenty of room for improvisation but also with enough structural design to prevent rote theme-exposition-theme patterns. The disc also featured the wonderful compositional work of Fuller, who functions as Jones’ artistic soul mate. Her songs: "Gullyism" and "Eternal Journey" were just as dynamic and gripping as Jones’ offering.
If "Eternal Journey" introduced a capable and dynamic trumpeter searching for his place in the jazz world, his glowing follow-up, "Gemini," reaffirms his status as a still-blossoming bright light. One year later, Jones doesn’t make the often-dangerous leap so far from his origins just to redefine himself to gain more media attention. "Gemini" documents more of a measured progression on artist, who’s revealing more of himself as an instrumentalist and composer.
Hard bop still functions as his music’s cornerstone, but here Jones refuses to be held captive by it. Instead he uses the idiom’s vocabulary and applies it to his interests in contemporary R&B and funk. After all, that’s what hard bop legends, such as Art Blakey and Horace Silver, did in the late-‘50s. And without doing the obligatory "plug in to wah-wah pedal" a la ’70s Miles Davis, Jones doesn’t shy away from amplification; on half of the tunes, he embraces electric keyboards and bass, manipulating them in such a way in which they sound natural to the music.
Jones reunites with Fuller, Evans and Miller from the "Eternal Journey" sessions, while expanding his frontline tonal palette by roping in tenor saxophonists label-mate Ron Blake and Walter Smith III and trombonist Andre Hayward (featured on one cut). The versatile Kenny Davis holds down the bass lines throughout the disc, but the drummer’s chair is shared by two extremely dynamic players: E.J. Strickland and Corey Rawls.
Born May 29, 1978 in Warren, Ohio, Jones uses his astrological sign as the disc’s title. You’ve heard all the rumors about Geminis artsy, moody and fickle with double personalities. Well, Jones is certainly not stuck in one mood, but his commitment to jazz shows that he’s not fickle either. As for being artsy? Naw, try artful. Also regarding that dual personality thing it’s not so much a Good v. Evil dichotomy but more of an earthy/ethereal, emotional/analytical and subtlety/emotive type dynamic. In the case of this "Gemini," it plays out with swing/groove and acoustic/electric.
To help keep the album’s flow as Jones slides between instrumentation and moods are three intriguing interludes. "Gemini (Phase 1)" opens the disc with a bang as Jones blares fiery twisting bebop phrases around Strickland’s lacerating drums. "Gemini (Phase 2)," written by Evans, ushers in the groove-oriented material as the leader blows a billowy melody across a tricky if haunting 15/4 vamp. "Gemini (Phase 3)" closes out the album with Jones showing his deep gospel roots. Here, he engages Evans in a traditional Gospel hymn.
Program-wise, "Gemini" functions like a concept LP, with side one, concentrating more on the acoustic, while the flip side is decidedly more electric and funky. After kicking it with Strickland on the combustive opener, Jones gives dap to Fuller with "In Her Honor," an effervescent tribute to her. Alternating between smoking hard bop swing and searing Latin rhythms, and invigorated by explosive solos from Jones and Fuller, the trumpeter says that the composition aptly describes her multifaceted musicality.
"Tia has a unique gift of combining melody and groove," observes Jones. "A lot of times, she won’t start off a tune with a melody; she’ll get the groove together first. I also love the way she writes changes. She’s not afraid to have a chord change last four or five bars just to let that mood settle."
To illustrate Jones’ sentiments regarding Fuller’s compositional gifts, he follows his tone poem to her with her beautiful composition, "Rain of Patience," a blissful mid-tempo ballad set to a lithe bossa nova groove, featuring lovely flute playing from the composer.
Shimmering bossa nova soon gives way to smoldering, roadhouse blues on "Blues for Matt B." Here, Jones digs deep in the blues bag, unraveling a sassy number that could easily pass for a Donald Byrd or Lee Morgan tune, especially in the way Jones swaggers and spits the melody. Jones says that tune was written in response to a close friend, Matt Bueller, who complained that "Eternal Journey" didn’t have any blues songs.
Jones keeps the song dedications going with the poignant ballad "B.J.’s Tune (Life in the Hand, Divine)." Distinguished by a plaintive yet heroic melody that increasingly gains more emotional punch by Miller’s orchestral piano accompaniment and Strickland’s symphonic cymbal accents and caressing brush work, the piece was written for Jones’ infant nephew, Benjamin Jacob. The trumpeter imbues the composition with a discreet yet highly effective gospel flavor, intensifying its spiritual overtones.
"B.J.’s Tune" was written, almost on the spot, while Jones was touring with Harry Connick, Jr. He says that after he got a call from his brother regarding the newborn, his brother quickly sent him a picture via cell phone of the infant. Moved to tears by the sight of his nephew, Jones started writing the song on a piece of napkin. "As the melody unfolded, I was reminded of how we use to talk about life in church and how you have to give your life back to God. So the melody evolved further, turning into this kind of worship section. That’s where ‘Life in the Hands, Divine’ comes from," Jones explains.
Gospel themes continue on the exalting "Mission Statement," a triumphant burner, penned by tenor saxophonist Quamon Fowler. Here Smith joins the horn foil of Jones and Fuller, embroidering intricate, scorching melodies against a Latin-tinged groove. Jones came across the song while playing with Fowler in Chicago. Quickly making note of the tune’s spiritual undertones, Jones inquired about its meaning. "When I asked what the tune was about, he gave me a scripture: Zechariah 4:6: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit -- that touched me," he recalls. "Quamon actually wrote me a little letter when he sent me the chart, ‘May the power of the Holy Spirit take over when this song is played, because that is the true desired focused in the Mission Statement.’"
After the transfixing "Gemini (Phase 2)," Jones flips the script with the popping "Into the Sun" on which Rawls steers the band between quicksilver swing and edgy funk. Evans’ aquatic keyboard flourishes, at times, recalls George Duke or Chick Corea, while Jones’ scintillating trumpet retains the essence of bebop phraseology even while blowing funky riffs worthy of Tom Browne.
"Gemini" soon simmers down a sexy neo-soul groove with "Chillin’ at Da Grill," another tone-poem, this time written for the famous jazz haunt, Crawford Grill, which Jones often frequents in his current residence of Pittsburgh. He claims that the club’s crowd would request everything from Duke Ellington to D’Angelo. Here, he takes on their requests in one masterful swoop as he underscores an Ellingtonian melody with a slinky, down-tempo groove.
Edgy backbeats return on the intriguing "T.V. Land," which features atonal colors swarming around the suspenseful horn melodies. Intricate yet undeniably funky, "T.V. Land" recalls Steve Coleman’s early M-Base work in the ’80s. The piece is followed up with another infectious joint, "Momma’s Groove," written by Rawls. Jones says that he just loves "Momma’s Groove" for Rawls’ rhythmic pockets that interlock with Davis’ bumping bass lines. "I love how the bass drops," Jones says" "It’s one of those tunes that you can crank up in your cars to get the bass rattling."
On the title track, Jones gives dap to the most famous Gemini trumpet players in jazz history Miles Davis. Written by Kenny Davis, the dark, prowling composition featuring Jones’ muted trumpet blowing feline lines across Davis’ throbbing bass lines and Rawls’ jabbing beats, perfectly evoking Miles’ mid-’80s collaborations with Marcus Miller.
Jones closes the CD with a slight return to his church roots on "Gemini (Phase 3)" on which he luxuriates his clarion trumpet lines inside Evans’ testifying piano accompaniment on a traditional gospel number.
"My sound and compositions have developed a great deal," Jones says about his growth between projects." I’m finally discovering who I am and what my voice is. With this album, I basically wanted to exploit my musical background and show the ever-evolving moods of a Gemini."