Alto and soprano saxophonist Jim Piela has explored the art of the quartet from a number of angles. His 2016 release Non Fiction paired saxophone and Fender Rhodes, while Out of Orbit and the four-track EP Force of Habit showcased him in a chordless environment with alto and trumpet. On his new outing, It Comes With the Territory, Piela enlists guitarist Mark McIntyre, whose full, clean-toned harmonies and burning lead work help ground this set of six original compositions, while also creating space within them. “Mark is the beating heart of this group,” Piela says. “His guitar speaks so clearly from his core. Once he joined the project, his unique musical voice permeated my entire concept for the record.”
Bassist Nick Jost and drummer Peter Kronrief complete a lineup that is versatile, alert, open to discovery. “Peter was the first hire,” Piela continues. “I’ve worked a lot of tour dates with him and I know he can meet any moment. And if Peter is the unstoppable force, Nick is the unmovable object. His playing has this amazing combination of lyricism and that deep rhythmic ‘thump’ that anchors the entire band. When I first heard him with Peter, I knew this was a special connection.”
For a good while, Piela had contemplated something like a love letter to Wayne Shorter’s 1966 Blue Note masterpiece Speak No Evil, and though the theme is somewhat disguised, It Comes With the Territory is that love letter. “It’s not a ‘cover’ or a tribute or a ‘reimagining,’ Piela clarifies, “but more like my guiding light.” The beautiful ballad “Crow Hill,” for instance, was inspired by the tempo, and only the tempo, of Shorter’s “Infant Eyes.” The arpeggiated intro to “Glass Cannon,” Piela explains, grew out of the intro to “Witch Hunt,” “but where ‘Witch Hunt’ is an exclamation point, I ended up coming from an intimate place. These little nods or interpretations are all over this record.”
Piela discerns a similar process at work in Shorter’s writing. The intervallic movement in “Fe-Fi-Fo-Fum,” for example, borrows from “Giant Steps,” but in a uniquely Shorterian way. Referencing the famous quote (attributed to Picasso) that “good artists borrow, great artists steal,” Piela muses: “There’s more to it than that, isn’t there? Great artists trust their process and their intuition enough that no matter the ‘input,’ the output will always be original to them.”
Many other, more personal elements inform the writing and playing on It Comes With the Territory. Piela’s home in Brooklyn, his upbringing in the Midwest, “the vibrant and the quiet parts,” Piela says. “I wanted to capture those moments with this music.” The “territory” in question, then, could be understood in a literal and metaphorical sense.
Having defined the territory, one may ask what is the “it”? Quite simply, it is “all of the sacrifices we make as creative professionals in New York, things that might seem totally at odds with the outside world,” Piela offers. Factor in the elusiveness of artistic inspiration and the challenges only mount. “It almost feels like structuring your life around potential energy,” adds the saxophonist. “There’s a dissonance in building future plans around something that’s not yet there, or standing on stage not knowing what’s going to happen next, of trusting yourself and your artistry. To many this dissonance is uncomfortable, even scary, but to creators that live it, it comes with the territory.”
Along with “Crow Hill,” the mellow and lyrical “Off Course” features the leader’s authoritative voice on soprano sax, with a powerfully centered bass solo from Jost leading off the rotation. Piela follows with the first of three standalone alto saxophone improvisations — short contrasting transitional pieces that set the stage for the yearning waltz “Hinterlands,” the aforementioned “Crow Hill” and the funky, rocking set closer “We’ll Burn That Bridge When We Get to It.” The playing throughout is solidly swinging, tonally rich, informed by sensitive listening and a unified band spirit.
“I knew I wanted to approach this record in a different way,” Piela says in sum. “Usually, I reflect on my hopes, on the world I want to see, and the player I want to be. Instead, for Territory, I wrote a single word at the top of all my charts: ‘Execute.’ Do what you do, play how you play, be who you are. It became a mantra of self-acceptance. Just execute — play the music I love to play. I had this very specific goal to stop thinking, stop trying to be overly technical. It Comes With the Territory speaks to loving who you are today, but knowing that there are infinite possibilities ahead: the next day is yet to be lived, just as the next phrase is yet to be played.”