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Travis Sullivan – New Directions

Alto saxophonist Travis Sullivan has released his third record “New Directions” on Posi-tone Records. Known primarily for leading his Björkestra project, Sullivan has assembled The Travis Sullivan Quartet where he is joined by pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Marco Panascia, and drummer Brian Fishler.

According to Jazz Times, Travis Sullivan is “…a gifted alto saxophonist and improviser who has also developed a strong and commanding voice as a composer.” He has also earned a worldwide reputation as an alto saxophonist, pianist, composer, and arranger. Sullivan has penned 8 of the 10 modern jazz compositions here on “New Directions.” Rodgers & Hart’s Spring is Here and the Tears for Fears classic Everybody Wants to Rule the World round out the rest of the recorded selections.

The opening cut Jamia’s Dance begins with the powerful sound of Sullivan’s rhythm section of Eckroth, Panascia and Fishler. Sullivan’s soon unleashes his unique alto sound that is full of passion. He seems to be singing through the saxophone which seems somehow reminiscent of Jan Garbarek’s haunting sound.

Autumn In N.H.  Like the preceding cut, showcases Sullivan’s haunting alto saxophone sound. It seems a bit more delicate with classical undertones. The interplay between the members of the quartet is wonderful, particularly the occasional implied meter changes by drummer Brian Fishler.

Tuneology is a great title for this swinging, hard bop-to-Latin tune. His streaming 8th notes speak the jazz language, yet in Sullivan’s own way. He never sounds contrived or cliché. A formidable piano solo is taken by Eckroth. There is also a wonderful release into the Afro-Cuban section during head and solos.

The sneaky and funky Hidden Agenda has a 70s cop show quality within its brief opening ostinato. Sullivan’s solo is not made of the predictable pentatonic/blues-born lines often used in such a setting. He plays more melodically, flirting briefly with some alternate fingerings in between shapely, cascading lines. Panascia deftly solos for the first time on bass.

Although The Travis Sullivan Quartet approaches the Rogers and Hart standard in their own refreshing way, I much prefer the sound of the group on Sullivan’s originals. The highlight for me on Spring Is Here comes within Sullivan’s final cadenza.

Georgie, unlike Spring Is Here features a sound and style more in keeping with the rest of the recording. Sullivan’s solo is constructed melodically and has the quality of a French saxophone etude set to jazz. It is a refreshing approach that sets Sullivan apart from others. Mike Eckroth solos beautifully on piano before the final melodic statement.

Everybody Wants To Rule The World reminded this listener of the way in which Coltrane interpreted his hit My Favorite Things. There are actually few similarities but enough to make a comparison. The short quote of the initial melody is all that seems in common with the 80s Tears for Fears classic however the pentatonic melody allows for some clever reharmonization. Later in the tune, the of 3/4 or 6/8 time feel gives way to a shuffle and then back to the original feeling in three.

The playful and hopeful Leap Of Faith gives way to one of Sullivan’s best efforts on saxophone here. Eckroth solos second on piano, although his take is tamer than the ferocity of Sullivan’s improvisation. Sullivan again stretches on the vamp as the group gradually retards and diminishes to the final fermata.

Eckroth solos first and is given the opportunity to demonstrate his own melodic solo voice on Magic Monday. Sullivan’s solo is more angular than Eckroth’s yet it is a desirable contrast within Magic Monday. Panascia solos for only the second time. This solo features him well on bass, but it is not as lengthy as on Hidden Agenda.

The final, title track New Directions well represents what this group does best – play modern, original jazz compositions. Eckroth plays a punctuated solo initially constructed of streaming 8th notes and then broadening to more rhythmic variation. As before, Sullivan plays with a drive and fire that keeps this listener engaged. Fisher solos over the figure laid down by Eckroth and Panascia before Sullivan joins in on the final statement of the head and plays a fitting solo vamp all the way to the ending unison kicks.

Travis Sullivan’s curious saxophone sound is not modeled after any obvious choices. He is neither Cannonball nor Sanborn – just two predictable and prominent influences among alto saxophonists today. His resonating alto voice with wide vibrato may have some skeptics due to its originality, however I trust his sound and music will also find many fans.

You can find out more at Posi-tone Records.

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