An artistic tradition is no longer valid when it fails to inspire burgeoning artists. Judging from Independence, the debut album by saxophonist Nir Naaman, the jazz tradition is still very much alive and capable of inspiring exciting new creations. A forthright instrumentalist and composer who draws from the wellsprings of Postwar jazz styles, Naaman has carved out his own distinctive voice on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, and devises tunes that are as shrewd as they are inviting to hear.
Employing such first rate musicians as the iconic pianist George Cables, the drummer Gregory Hutchinson, the bassist Dezron Douglas and the trumpeter Marcus Printup, Naaman demonstrates that seeds extracted from bebop, hard bop and Coltrane-inspired sources continue to yield succulent fruit. As the album titles states, Naaman, after working with celebrated artists including Eddie Marshall, Terri Lynne Carrington, Joanne Brackeen, Dave Samuels and Winard Harper, is ready to stake his own claim as a maturing musician. Born and raised in Israel, Naaman is now living and working in the country from which the music he's enraptured with was itself born.
Although Independence does feature a pair of evocative readings of standards - a spirited group turn on "The Very Thought Of You" and an expressive duet between the leader and Cables on "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" - the other eight tunes are Naaman originals. This finely crafted work displays Naaman's sure hand as a composer, and, as each piece was specially crafted to feature a different horn, allows the listener to bask in his individuality and confidence as a multifarious player. As befits a saxophonist attuned to the majestic tones of such masters as John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Joe Henderson, Naaman exhibits his command of the tenor horn on "Ohali Blues," "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and "Independence," each a shining example of his surity and brio in work of varying tempos and moods. Of particular interest is another tenor feature, "Eshal Elohai/ Shalom Shabazi," an adaptation of Yemenite Jewish songs that Naaman has been familiar with since he was a child.
As George Cables (who, in addition to his superb keyboard contributions, also acted as the album's producer) states in his liner notes, " One of the most important things about jazz is that it is a living music which offers an open invitation for musicians to incorporate their own musical and cultural influences, whatever they may be. Nir's inclusion of "Eshal Elohai," which is part of his tradition is a fantastic case in point." And, as Naaman points out, the contributions of Cables, Hutchinson and Douglas - each finding a way into the Middle Eastern idiom through his own idiomatic instrumental voice - adds yet more varied and personal flavor to the polyglot performance.
Naaman's ace may be his ability to wield two other horns with equal dexterity and individuality. His fine soprano work can be heard on two of his most lyrical pieces, "Winter Sun" and Dream," while his creative and commanding work on alto is exhibited on "Fall," "Dilemma" and "The Very Thought Of You." The album concludes with another spotlighted alto performance, "New Orleans Twist," Naaman's jaunty second line groove salute to the spiritual birthplace of jazz. Throughout the album, the featured saxophonist receives rousing and sensitive support from all involved. (In addition to Cables, Hutchinson, Douglas and Printup, Naaman is joined by the pianist Roy Assaf and the drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. on a handful of performances.)
"Making this album gave me a chance to explore different sides of my musical personality," Naaman states. "I wanted to explore different moods and textures, yet never lose the overall coherence of the project. Working with these great musicians gave me that chance."
Born and raised in Israel where he served as a lead alto saxophonist in the Israeli Air Force Band, Naaman moved to the U.S. in 2004 and went on to graduate from the Berklee College of Music, furthering his studies at Purchase College where he received a master's degree in Jazz Studies. In the spring of 2010, Naaman took part in the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program at the Kennedy Center For the Arts in Washington, D.C. where his mentors included Dr. Billy Taylor, Nathan Davis, Curtis Fuller and George Cables. Naaman has performed throughout the United States, Europe, Israel and Japan with various ensembles. He leads a New York-based quartet and splits his time between New York City and Boston where he is enrolled in the Doctor of Musical Arts program at New England Conservatory.