With his new album, Ezra Weiss demonstrates why he was listed as a Rising Star Arranger in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics Polls, reaffirming his status as one of today's preeminent young jazz pianists and composers. With an all-star band that includes some of today's top young talent, the Ezra Weiss Sextet plays modern, original compositions and arrangements, all deeply rooted in jazz tradition, with emotional energy and artistic drive. In this band, trumpeter Farnell Newton (Jill Scott, Bootsy Collins), alto saxophonist John Nastos (Diane Schurr, Chuck Israels), tenor saxophonist Devin Phillips (Wynton Marsalis, Los Hombres Calientes), bassist Jon Shaw (Blue Cranes, Javier Nero), and drummer Christopher Brown (Roy Hargrove, Benny Golson) join forces to bring Weiss' heartfelt and imaginative compositions to life.
The album, Ezra Weiss Sextet: Before You Know It [Live in Portland], out September 9 on the Roark Records label, is his seventh album as a leader, but marks Weiss' first venture into live recording. "I wanted to bring the energy of our live shows to the album, so that you could listen to it and feel like you were sitting there at the club." Beautifully recorded by Rick Gordon and artfully mixed by Katsuhiko Naito, this album perfectly achieves Weiss' goal.
Weiss has earned wide critical acclaim for his previous CDs: 5 A. M. Strut (2003), Persephone (2005), Get Happy (2007), Alice in Wonderland (2009), The Shirley Horn Suite (2011), and Our Path To This Moment (2012).
Perhaps more than any other composer of his generation, Ezra Weiss consistently writes memorable melodies, which he creatively brings to the forefront with his thoughtful orchestration. While his sextet obviously pays homage to Horace Silver and Art Blakey's bands, Weiss brings the spaciousness of Shirley Horn and the structural development of Maria Schneider to his music. These influences clearly emerge on the opening track, "Winter Machine," winner of the 2006 ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award. "There's a lot that stands out for me about this performance of 'Winter Machine,'" says Weiss. "Chris Brown's modern take on the drumming, Farnell Newton's heavy blues, and especially John Nastos' alto sound - it's so virtuosic and still so musical."
The sextet then takes off on "The Crusher," a fast burner that brings to mind both the intensity of Woody Shaw and the dynamic excitement of Charles Mingus. Then in a sudden change of pace, the band follows this with "Don't Need No Ticket," a soulful ballad that takes its title from a Curtis Mayfield lyric. Perhaps this slow funk is the arena where this band stands out the most, bringing together the sensitivity of the Stylistics with the intensity of John Coltrane.
Again changing things up, the sextet jumps into their modern take on the classic Gershwin "A Foggy Day." Weiss' arranging skills are obvious here, as he completely reimagines this great standard. And in this live setting, the band is able to stretch out, everyone finding new directions for improvisational exploration. The band continues with "Jessie's Song," a 7-minute masterpiece written for Weiss' wife. The ensemble playing here is truly extraordinary, showcasing the group's dynamics, intonation, and collective phrasing.
"The Five A.M. Strut" was originally recorded on Weiss' debut album of the same name. While that studio version was only four minutes long, this performance is over fifteen minutes. Again, the live setting allows the band to stretch out on the solos, making everyone's personalities shine through. For instance, Devin Phillips' New Orleans background comes out loud and clear. "This was the first tune I wrote when I moved to Portland," says Weiss. "I had a gig that started at two in the morning. This tune is about playing a gig like that, and then somehow having to figure out how to get home."
"Alabama" was originally composed by John Coltrane after the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in which four girls were killed. Weiss says, "After the shootings at Sandy Hook, I was looking for some healing music to help me cope. I thought about John Coltrane, and then thought of 'Alabama,' and suddenly felt very scared to listen to it. That's when I decided I needed to arrange it." This arrangement, which treats Coltrane's melody as a canon and features an extended solo by Devin Phillips, is dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.
The band closes out the set with "Before You Know It," a soulful piece Weiss wrote for his first son before he was born. Again, the sextet shines on this funky ballad with beautiful solos by all of the horn players.
By the end of the album, we feel as though we've been there in the club, taken on an epic journey with these stellar musicians.
Recently listed in the 2012 and 2013 DownBeat Critics Polls and three-time winner of the ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award, composer/pianist Ezra Weiss has led bands in many of the country's greatest clubs including Dizzy's Club Coca-Coca in NYC, the Triple Door in Seattle, and Catalina's in Los Angeles. He holds a bachelor's degree in Jazz Composition from the Oberlin Conservatory and a master's degree in Jazz Piano from Queens College. His recordings include The Five A.M. Strut, Persephone, Get Happy, Alice in Wonderland, The Shirley Horn Suite, and Our Path To This Moment, all of which have garnered significant international acclaim from press and radio. While living in New York, Weiss worked as arranger and pianist for legendary drummer Billy Hart. He currently lives with his wife and two sons in Portland, Oregon, where he teaches at Portland State University.