No Way Out
by Richard Cohn

Talking and writing about music is so much fun, it’s a wonder anyone actually gets paid to do it. You get to make all kinds of subjective judgments that can’t be proven wrong. You can indulge your passion for spotting influences and tracking evolving traditions. Or you can just have a ball winging it-- letting the metaphors multiply and mutate around anything the music happens to bring to mind. And then you actually try to describe the music itself and you’re doomed. Searching for the words that convey even a small part of what makes great music move you and grab you and take up permanent residence in your soul is a futile endeavor. And if you’re talking jazz, your dilemma is further magnified by the absurdity of trying to capture the essence of something that is as spontaneous and abstract as it is personal and complex. So why even try? Maybe it’s because for some of us, a great musical experience is never totally satisfying until we’ve somehow managed to pass it along and share it with others

Which brings me to a new CD from David Brandom entitled NO WAY OUT on the Blujazz label. As with all great music, this album’s greatest virtues and pleasures are ultimately indescribable. But if by leaving it at that I’ve failed to convince you to get this album (and David’s earlier album Home) then I’m happy and willing to press on and do my best to express the inexplicable

First things first. If you’re not familiar with saxophonist David Brandom, chances are you’re mistaken. A ubiquitous presence in recording studios, concert halls and orchestra pits for over twenty years, David has most likely (and probably many times over) made a lasting impression upon your ears. His prodigious body of work includes contributions to some of the most popular music of our time. If you’ve listened to Sinatra, Bennett, Cole, Joel, Anka, Sting, Taylor, The Temps, Four Tops, Faddis, Charlap, Brecker -- chances are you’ve listened to Brandom. I could add another dozen “only surname needed” luminaries, not to mention scores of Broadway shows, and the star-studded Westchester Jazz Orchestra of which he is a founding member--but nuff said, the man is a master

And though David’s resume is solid gold, it takes more than a stellar history of brilliant performing and collaboration to compose and create original and memorable music of one’s own. Many gifted supporting players develop a kind of humility and magnanimity that is not always conducive to meeting the challenge of bold and daring creative leadership. But there are exceptions. And David is one hell of an exception. And No Way Out is the proof

Like all great sax players, David has a distinctive sound. Whether it’s Coltrane, or Sonny Rollins, or Lester Young or Wayne Shorter, the sound itself is an extension of the artist’s unique personality. With David, the sound reflects his easy-going confidence and engaging intelligence. It also speaks of a straightforward honesty and directness that is even more apparent in his compositions. His writing is steeped in the best traditions while at the same time so full of fresh energy and ideas that everything feels familiar and brand new at the same time. The melodic invention and harmonies are so smart and sophisticated, I’m still finding new surprises a half dozen listenings later. David’s mastery of every form from Bop to Ballad is so complete that every track sounds tailor made to his talents. And the distinguished company he keeps on this disc is no less perfectly suited to every challenge. From the opening drum intro on the title track, you know you’re in good hands, and when the harmonized head kicks in and the rhythm section is in full throttle, you know that this is going to be an exciting team effort all the way.

Joining David (playing Tenor and Soprano as well as Flute) on No Way Out are Scott Wendholt Trumpet and Flugelhorn, Steve Cardenas Electric Guitar, Gary Versace Piano and Hammond B3 Organ, Mike McGuirk Acoustic Bass Ron Vincent Drums. The album also features appearances by Jay Azzolina Electric and Acoustic Guitars Adam Cruz Drums Dave Anderson Electric Bass and Joe Cardello Percussion.

With a generous ten tracks in all-- all but three composed by David-- the album covers a lot of ground. It gets off to a rousing start with back-to-back up-tempo Brandom originals-- No Way Out and Spruce Goose and then settles into a more pastoral mood with the beautiful Corbin Mill. To single out any of the solo work on this album would mean to single out every solo --they’re all that good—suffice it to say that everyone gets a chance to stand out and shine. The R & B tinged Clever Shoes with a prominent Hammond B3 in the mix is a soulful treat and is followed by the achingly beautiful Did She Happen to ask About Me. The fun kicks in again on a particularly playful Blues On The Corner before settling down again for an absolutely stunning version of Wayne Shorter’s Ana Maria. I’ve never heard anyone but Shorter play this haunting melody, and David handles it on Soprano with exquisite taste and extracts every ounce of magic from its lyrical depths. The group gets funky on Barren Mind and does a sexy samba on TM before winding it all up with Bop at a civilized tempo on Quasimodo

I’m often surprised that many people who love great music and great jazz in particular, have fallen out of the habit of seeking out and listening to what is being played by today’s most accomplished practitioners of the art. Perhaps the seeking out and finding is not as easy as it used to be. So, consider this review a service by which the search has already been completed and all that’s left for you is the listening. Because if you love jazz, especially the kind where melody and harmony still matter, where experience and skill are paramount and where the sound of soulful synchronized teamwork is music to your ears—then you’ll be thrilled with David Brandom and No Way Out. It is in a word, indescribable.

David Brandom's Home
by Richard Cohn

Ah, pity the poor jazz enthusiasts. Now that practically an entire century of music has been re-mastered, reissued and “Boxed Set”to exhaustion, what’s left? Smooth Jazz has become the auditory equivalent of Prozac. The curious cadre of young turks seem more eager to display a mastery of their tools than inspired to use them to create something of substance. And all that meticulous recreating of music from the past can give you the willies – like those Civil-War battle re-enactors who can’t seem to lose themselves enough in their obsession with a by-gone era. The situation appears hopeless, until we venture out from under the clouds of gloom and do a little exploring outside the main thoroughfares of musical commerce. So that’s what I’ve been doing. Talking to people. Wandering the Web, checking out what’s happening locally, and as luck has it I’ve found quite a lot. And one of the very best things I found was here in my own backyard. In fact I found it at Home

Home is the title of the latest CD from Saxophonist/ Composer David Brandom. (Now available online at A Larchmont resident for the last 13 years, David has had a career that is as distinguished as it is eclectic. I would end up using most of the remaining space in this article if I were to attempt to list them all, but here are some highlights: four years on tour with Frank Sinatra; work with Tony Bennett, Billy Joel, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Sting, James Taylor, the Temptations, Randy Brecker, Bill Charlip John Faddis: played in scores of Broadway shows including Ain’t Misbehavin, Chicago, Grease; studied with Don Sebesky, Michael Brecker, George Coleman, Eddie Daniels and that’s not even the half of it. Chances are, even if you’ve never heard of David Brandom, you’ve heard him, and most likely, quite a bit. Brandom plays tenor sax with mind-boggling technique and seasoned assurance. He displays complete command of a bold rich sound that he adjusts and shapes to suit every setting. His solos swing and soar with purpose and clarity, and he never plays a note that isn’t meaningful or compelling. Yet what makes Brandom most remarkable is that he plays and composes the kind of music that will satisfy the most demanding jazz lover while pleasing and perhaps even thrilling those who couldn’t tell the difference between Monk and Mantovanni

Excepting Wes Montgomery’s Full House, every selection on Home is a Brandom composition. And with each he breathes new life into a style that harkens back to the work of such artists as Horace Silver, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock and others whose recordings from the fifties and sixties these tracks seem to re-conjure in the minds’ ear. I found myself smiling when the first 7 notes of the melody on a track entitled Gusano Loco paid homage to Horace Silver and then took off on it’s own fresh path to something entirely new and original. And like many of the classic Blue Note records that combined superior artistry with accessible forms and rhythms, this music digs a groove deep enough to lie in for hours

Brandom’s music on Home offers a feast of pleasures over the course of nine distinctly different compositions – each with their own richly developed character. The up-tempo tunes, especially one entitled Flat Out, come at you like hot peppers in a smooth sauce – the tempo is blazing but it never feels breathless or hasty. The ballads, including the title cut are graceful and serene but never sentimental or maudlin. This is mature music with a youthful spirit. It’s willing and able to go exploring and take risks, yet too experienced to get lost and too wise to flirt with disaster

On Home, Brandom leads a sextet powerfully poised to handle his elegant harmonies and tightly structured compositions. Jim O’Connor on Trumpet and Flugelhorn is a force to be reckoned with. Besides the imaginative soloing and flawless execution, the tone is what grabs you. I was reminded of Thad Jones and Clifford Brown more than a few times. Tim Regusis on piano is a revelation. His comping is as stirring and soulful as his solos, and chorus after chorus, he keeps coming up with new ideas that surprise and delight. Steve Cardenas on guitar has a few chances to shine as well and makes the most of it with great taste and flair. He’s got an approach that reminded me of Jim Hall with his warm tone and spacious phrasing. Cliff Schmitt on Bass and Ron Vincent on drums are more than just the glue that holds this music together. After listening to the CD a few times, I became more and more aware of how remarkable their contribution was. Every groove is set up perfectly, and then new colors and textures are added without ever diminishing the sense of forward motion that provides even the ballads with an inner pulse that never stops swinging. Vincent is a magician (listen to his cymbal work on MOB) and Schmitt is just so smartly attuned to every nuance in every measure that the effect is mesmerizing

I met David briefly before listening to his music and he made light of his choice of Home as the title for this CD. In retrospect, I suspect he was being too modest. Home is the perfect title for this music. Home is where we can kick back and relax. Home is where we can put the world on hold and replenish our spirits. And most importantly, home is where the heart is. That, and a lot of other good stuff, is what this music is all about.

Nearly fifty years ago, when Swing, Be-Bop, Cool, Free Jazz, and a few other sub-genres were all at different stages of their popularity and influence, Louis Armstrong was asked to comment on the current state of the art. In his inimitable manner, Louis simply replied “There’s only two kinds of music. Good music and bad music” I think Louis would have dug David Brandom.

Richard Cohn is a Creative Marketing Consultant and amateur guitarist residing in Larchmont