Monday, November 06, 2017

The Mark Zaleski Band Returns After Nearly a Decade With Its Wide-Ranging, Hard-Swinging Second Album, Days, Months, Years

Bandleader and composer Zaleski pulls off the impressive feat of playing both saxophone and bass on the album, which features his long-running ensemble

Sparks can fly from an initial meeting, but true chemistry only comes with time. That's true in jazz as it is in life, as can be heard by listening to the evolution of the music's great bands as they grow and evolve over time. Nearly a decade after their debut release, the Mark Zaleski Band returns with the fruits of their own long tenure together. On Days, Months, Years, released October 6, 2017, the quintet (and sometime sextet) reveals the fruits that come from putting in the time, year after year, gig after gig.

While the Mark Zaleski Band has been together for 11 years, the relationships between the bandleader and some of his collaborators reach back even further - nearly a lifetime in the case of keyboardist Glenn Zaleski, Mark's younger brother and a gifted composer/bandleader in his own right. Tenor saxophonist Jon Bean has been Zaleski's best friend since the two met as students at Boston's New England Conservatory 12 years ago. Both guitarist Mark Cocheo and bassist Danny Weller (who is a regular part of the live band and appears on one track here) first crossed paths with Zaleski at that prestigious institution as well. In that company drummer Oscar Suchenek is the relative newcomer, joining four years ago after meeting Zaleski in the ranks of the acclaimed Either/Orchestra.

It takes the kind of telepathic communication that only comes with such longevity and chemistry to manage the album's most impressive feat. Zaleski does double duty in the band's line-up, part of both his namesake band's frontline, playing alto and soprano saxophone, as well as its rhythm section, playing bass on five of the six tracks. A lot of planning and some complicated logistics (not to mention a bit of studio acrobatics) were required, though as with the best magic the effort never shows in the final product. The music on Days, Months, Years is as lively, swinging and robust as if a sixth member - Zaleski clone or not - was playing along with them.

"Playing bass and saxophone for a jazz record is obviously kind of tricky," Zaleski admits. "I don't think I'd be able to pull it off with just any group of musicians. It requires the real life bond that everybody in this band has with each other." While saxophone has been Zaleski's primary instrument since he first picked one up at 9 years old, he's maintained a lifelong flirtation with the bass. Growing up listening to classic and modern rock, the guitar loomed larger in his imagination than the clarinet that he played in the school band, which seemed to have little to do with the music of Led Zeppelin or Metallica. Even as he shifted his focus to jazz, Zaleski would sneak away from his sax shedding to play around with a friend's upright bass while studying at the Dave Brubeck Institute or NEC.

Seven or eight years ago, that tinkering became a little more serious as Zaleski finally invested in a bass of his own and quickly found himself in demand for gigs and recording sessions as a bassist. "What I thought was going to be a fun little hobby suddenly blew up," he recalls. "I always felt this organic connection to the bass, but it's now become a real part of my life that I couldn't let go of. Though it was kind of crazy, it seemed like the most accurate representation of myself as an artist had to do with bass playing as well as saxophone playing."

Days, Months, Years kicks off with the anthemic "Mark in the Park," which has become something of a theme song for the band. Over the course of its ten minutes, the band gets to show off nearly every facet of its sound, from bracing swing to lilting groove, modern jazz angularity and a rocking, funky backbeat. The first solo belongs to Zaleski's alto, over his own thick, Ray Brown-influenced bass line. Pulling that off required a bit of in-studio juggling and after-the-fact tracking, but the seams never show. "I didn't want anything to seem overproduced," Zaleski says. "I wanted to maintain the organic quality of the improvisational sections."

"Cerina," named for the street where the band used to practice in Boston's Jamaica Plain neighborhood (not far from the park where "Mark in the Park" was written), begins with an unaccompanied duo improvisation between the two saxophonists that offers a glimpse of the deep friendship and understanding that Zaleski and Bean share. The rest of the band kicks in with a fiery, Latin-tinged rhythm, which later gives way to a more atmospheric section for Cocheo's entrancing solo.

The title track was penned by a younger Zaleski in a moment of career anxiety, its simmering intensity revealing of his frustration, though the song ultimately ends on a hopeful note, one that has since been paid off with the composer's success as both a musician and an educator. A funky arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" follows, offering a glimpse of a well-known piece reimagined through Zaleski's own singular voice.

An elegiac ballad showcasing Zaleski's soprano playing, "Katie's Song" is a dedication to a close childhood friend who was killed far too young in a tragic car accident. Finally, the swaggering "Big Foot" offers a glimpse of the live Mark Zaleski Band experience, with regular bassist Danny Weller (who was busy attending to the birth of his child when the rest of the album was recorded) joining the fold. Zaleski's arrangement of the lesser-known Charlie Parker tune melds the original bebop sound with a burly blues feel.

A native of Boylston, Massachusetts, Zaleski has enjoyed a diverse career, playing with jazz greats like Christian McBride, Dave Brubeck, Antonio Sanchez and Dave Liebman, among others, while also working with singer Connie Francis and touring with rock legends Jethro Tull. At just 31, he's become one of the most in-demand educators in Boston, serving as chair of the Woodwind and Brass departments at Bard College's Longy School of Music and harmony professor at Berklee College of Music, and teaching ear training, lessons and ensembles at his alma mater, New England Conservatory. In addition to leading his own band, he's currently a member (on electric bass) of the long-running Either/Orchestra and Planet Radio, a funk/soul band that he co-founded.

The band is scheduled for a couple of South Florida CD release concerts:
Lagniappe House (Miami) on March 8
Le Chat Noir (Miami) on March 9
Arts Garage (Delray Beach) on March 10  

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