Friday, March 30, 2018

Renee Rosnes "Beloved of the Sky"

Renee Rosnes Beloved of the Sky Smoke SSR-1801

The stark cover art on pianist Renee (pronounced Ree Nee) Rosnes latest album Beloved of the Sky features a tall, spindly, yet singularly defiant pine standing in a field of stumps; remnants of its clear-cut brethren. The painting is titled Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky and was painted by Northwest Canadian artist named Emily Carr back in 1935 when the artist was sixty-five years old; some say at the peak of her creative powers.

The painting was the source of inspiration for another Pacific Northwest born and raised Canadian, the pianist Renee Rosnes, who at fifty-six is showing signs of entering her own peak of creative powers as an impressive instrumentalist, a formidable composer and a leader in her own right. She is joined by a powerhouse group of like-minded innovators including scarily talented multi-reed artist Chris Potter, the sublime vibraphonist Steve Nelson, stalwart bassist Peter Washington and driving drummer Lenny White.

I first heard Rosnes on a great JJ Johnson album titled Heroes from 1998 where her playing just blew me away. I’ve been a fan ever since. In a year where we  are finally celebrating the talented women in jazz, Rosnes is a clear leading lady in this genre.

Renee Rosnes (Photo credit unknown)
If you have any doubt about the creative forces bubbling out of this woman just listen to the driving opener titled “Elephant Dust,” a reference to an allergic reaction to petting a circus elephant.  The music is a supercharged composition that is utterly original, pinning you to your seat from the very start. Many songs have a powerful drive, but few challenge conventions so effectively with the marvelous use of fractured, staccato changes that Rosnes employs and which the group navigates with graceful aplomb. The irrepressible Potter’s frenetic lead tenor intertwining brilliantly with Rosnes piano and Nelson’s buoyant vibes as Washington and White lay down a roiling rumble. Rosnes can play with the best of them, her splendid solo just a sample of this woman’s chops. This song is a joy and one can just imagine how much fun the musicians had laying this breathless track down.

“Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky” is the most representative composition of Rosnes thoughtful rumination on the subject matter of Carr’s cover painting. Potter’s lilting soprano rises above Rosnes' resonating piano lines like the lone pine that stands in lonely defiance of its blighted surroundings. There is a somber grace here that has elements of classical music somehow woven with nativist underpinnings. Washington’s bass often providing a booming backdrop in concert with Rosnes piano.  When the pianist offers a brief solo it is a gorgeous interlude that bespeaks of the great natural beauty that is being so recklessly dismissed in the name of progress. Potters soprano solo soars on gossamer wings and Nelson’s tubular sound is reverential. An aural feast.

The album is filled with interesting music, often thematically connected by a sense of flow. “Mirror Image” was originally commissioned for the SF Jazz Collective of which Rosnes is a charter member. The song was composed as a feature for legendary vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and here features Steve Nelson and Chris Potter. Rosnes graceful composition is a series of shimmering reflections that ascend and descend with a fluidity that create the underpinning for the soloists to expand upon. Potter is particularly expansive on his tenor.

While recording this album, Rosnes must have been channeling the late Bobby Hutcherson, who she played with for more than twenty years. She takes a particularly reflective solo on the vibraphonist's delightful composition “Rosie.” Potter never seems to be short on ideas and once again his biting tenor steals the show, while Nelson’s reserved ringing tubes offer a warm counterpoint.

On Rosnes jet-fueled “Black Holes” we are treated to the rhythmic stylings of this powerful pianist. Drummer White is particularly potent here, but it is the dazzling interplay between Rosnes and Potter that is the highlight. Washington lays down some powerful bottom and White is propulsive while Rosnes ostinato prods an energetic exchange with Potter’s hair-raising tenor, bringing the music to new heights and a powerful coda.

The contemplative Rosnes composition “The Flame and the Lotus”  features the melody line played in unison by Potter’s tenor and Nelson’s vibes, as White plays his toms in a cadenced march. After a brief Nelson solo, Rosnes takes a solo that gives us a taste of her bluesy side. Potter gives another rousing solo before the group returns back to the original melody line.

“Rhythm of the River” is another Rosnes composition that has a distinctive samba pulse. The group sounding to me like early Return to Forever and Potter’s flute sounding eerily like the great Joe Farrell’s at times. 

Alec Wilder’s “The Winter of My Discontent” is a ballad that Rosnes plays with great sensitivity. The pianist first heard this brooding melody as a teenager sung by the vocalist Helen Merrill and accompanied by the pianist Dick Katz.  Potter takes a gorgeously plaintive solo and Peter Washington’s bass gets to the core of the emotional poignancy of this song with a masterful pizzicato solo.

The closer is a pure swinger, "Let the Rumpus Start," whose pulse is given its swagger by this fabulous rhythm section of Washington and White. Rosnes is remarkably adept at fitting in some bubbling lines on her piano while the crew percolate behind her. Potter is no stranger to letting loose in front of a swinging section and Washington’s facile bass is given a chance to strut his stuff. The song ends with White taking turns at different rhythmic variations.

Renee Rosnes’ Belovedof the Sky, which will be released on Smoke Records on April 6th,  is simply a superlative session that stimulates the senses on so many levels and provokes serious and rewarding listening for those willing to take the time.

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