I had first heard the saxophonist Joel Press on a CD called HOW’S THE HORN TREATING YOU? some years ago. I was delighted by his imagination, his ease, his sense of self — he knows and has lived through an entire jazz tradition from Lester and Hawkins to free jazz and beyond, but he sounds utterly like himself.
Then, more recently, I had the good fortune to hear his duet sessions with pianist Kyle Aho, UNTYING THE STANDARD, which impressed me greatly. (Both of these CDs are on the Cadence Jazz Records label, numbers 1184 and 1204, and both are consistently uplifting.) And the beautifully idiosyncratic photograph — legs and untied shoes — is by Joel’s daughter Maya Francesca Press, a questing artist herself.
I learned that Joel was coming to New York to appear twice in quartets headed by the superb pianist Michael Kanan (whose work on Dan Block’s new Ellington disc is a sweet highlight). Joel transcended my expectations as a player and as a person: friendly, candid, full of feeling.
Here is the quartet — completed by the wondrous Pat O’Leary and the steadily powerful Joe Hunt — as they appeared at Smalls. One of the high points of that night was FOOLIN’ MYSELF, learned from the irreplaceable 1937 Billie Holiday – Lester Young recording.
This version is both original and a loving homage: notice Joel’s mastery of tone (purring or strong), his own phrase-shapes (you can’t predict where he is about to land, but once he has, it makes perfect sense), his speaking approach to the horn, as if he were someone with an important message he wanted to whisper in everyone’s ear. Pay attention to Michael’s subtle, needling approach to his phrases; he can be percussive or as gentle as someone carefully smoothing the wrinkles out of the blanket. And then there’s Pat’s sound, his rich sonority, his mastery of space and time; Joe’s serious pulse, his mastery of his whole drum kit. FOOLIN’ MYSELF is, to me, a delicious exploration of the past that makes it brightly alive in 2010 . . . with more to come:
and a brief dialogue between Joel and Michael to conclude this lovely performance: