Alto saxophonist and Philadelphian Neil Wetzel has recently released his long-overdue solo album Misunderestimated on Hot Apple Spider Productions. Wetzel is joined by some of the area’s best jazz artists from Philadelphia and the Lehigh Valley on this inaugural release. As a longtime sideman, woodwind player and educator Neil Wetzel’s abilities have been well documented over the years. He has now realized his full potential as a solo artist on alto saxophone.
The settings on Misunderestimated, ranging from jazz quartet to larger ensembles featuring multiple winds and strings, all feature Neil Wetzel on alto saxophone. In addition to Wetzel on alto, the core ensemble consists of Tom Lawton on piano, Tony Marino on upright bass and Gary Rissmiller on drums.
The opening track, Day Gig is a medium-up swing tune featuring the ensemble beginning with the melody, harmony and counterpoint played by Wetzel on alto sax and Tony DeSantis on trumpet. The energy is palpable. Inspired solos follow by both Wetzel on alto and DeSantis on trumpet.
The second track, An Inconsequential Life penned by producer and trumpeter Bob Shuster, is a genuine departure from the style and feel of the opening track. The pop/Afro-Cuban shuffle (for lack of a better description) has an infectious groove perfect for showing off Wetzel’s tasty and punctuated alto saxophone playing.
Jangled and the opening track Day Gig are of a similar mold, featuring Wetzel and DeSantis on the angular melody and harmony. Wetzel’s sound and feel during the opening solo passage is demonstrative of his enviable command of the alto saxophone. Tom Lawton follows Wetzel with his own fiery piano solo countered by an equally percussive bass solo by Tony Marino. Uncommonly, the bass is not the last to solo here. Tony DeSantis has the penultimate solo and the last word comes from Gary Rissmiller on drums.
First Dance, written by Bob Shuster provides a beautifully written and performed string orchestration to compliment Neil Wetzel’s intoxicating alto saxophone playing. It is over all too soon for this listener. I could have listened to this arrangement all day long.
The cute, swinging Jumpin’the Shark highlights the traditional sound of jazz sextet with the added Cameron MacManus on trombone. The Happy Days reference is not lost on this reviewer and elicited a chuckle or two while imagining Fonzie in the ill-fated episode of the iconic 70s TV series. Wetzel’s solo on alto sax bore no similarity to the title. Wetzel did not “jump the shark” but instead “drove it home” on this one.
Shades and Don’t Know are interesting tunes buried about half way through this CD project. They are easily overlooked but offer some inspired playing by the ensemble. Wetzel is credited on Shades with his touch here on tenor and baritone saxophone as well as his signature alto sound. Further investigation revealed the credits on Shades and Don’t Know might be transposed. Although not credited, one can only assume the flugelhorn solo comes from legendary Philadelphian, Tony DeSantis.
Her Touch evokes shades of the tune Laura with the similar chord changes, string arrangement and Wetzel’s sensual alto saxophone. Surely, the saxophone world should take notice of Neil Wetzel’s playing here.
The title track Misunderestimated pays reverence to the early bop standards like The Eternal Triangle by Sonny Stitt and countless other bop standards. Lawton takes the first chorus followed by MacManus on trombone, DeSantis on trumpet, Wetzel on sax, Marino on bass and a quasi shout chorus by the ensemble and Rissmiller on drums.
The final track on Misunderestimated heads south to the islands with an Afro-Cuban feel, punctuated by Lawton’s Rhodes. Neil Wetzel shows off his impressive skills and harmonic knowledge over this infectious groove eliciting the best of salsa dancers to jump in. Not to be outdone, Lawton and DeSantis offer their own rhythmic musings following the alto saxophone solo. The ensemble sections following the solos here are icing on the cake for what is otherwise a fine offering by Neill Wetzel and company on Misunderestimated.
Wetzel’s playing is truly “misunderestimated.” He has a voice and a gift worthy of many listeners.
You can find out more about Neil Wetzel HERE.