The album is composed almost entirely by Jane Ira Bloom with the single exception of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere.” Joining her are long-time associates Mark Helias on bass and Bobby Previte on drums. She drew these guys together with her in 2015 for this very project and it is a trio for the ages.
“Song Patrol” is the inaugural piece on the album. The strummed bass of Helias and the rim shots and hollow toms of Previte kick it off. Jane Ira Bloom’s exquisite soprano saxophone flies in on the wings of a lark and it is obvious from the very beginning that this is going to speak to your soul.
The trio is aware of each other in ways that comes only from deep familiarity. That Bloom and Helias have known each other since the mid-1970s and Bloom and Previte since 2000 should come as no surprise once you hear them together.
“Dangerous Times” features an aboriginal rhythm section as Bloom’s soprano sax seems to embody the fight or flight impulse. It is reminiscent of the Native American encounters with the European colonists and the uneasy relationship that unfolded into outright hostility as the Europeans began the push across the American continents. The drums are relentless and the bass drones menacingly as the sax flees, seeks to resist, and flees again. Still, the loveliness of the sax maintains its own virtue against the worst of threats.
“Nearly (For Kenny Wheeler)” is the shortest piece on the album. It is a solo soprano sax piece that allows Bloom full expression and exposure. It is lyrical and stunning in its simple beauty.
The tone and tempo changes with “Hips & Sticks.” Previte’s rhythms are brilliant and entirely captivating. It is a hard groove with a propulsion issuing from Helias’ bass that works perfectly with Previte. Over it all, Bloom dances to the drive of the rhythm section. This is tight and hot. Helias and Previte take off and stay aloft throughout the piece. There is a sound and a sensation here that is unexpected and certainly unmatched. This one got me good.
“Singing the Triangle” opens with soprano and bass in duet. The moves away with the drums in agreement as the Bloom sax works at odd ends. Then the trio catches together and all three artists are in complete union. Helias’ solo is an extension of the melodic line and Previte is in lock-step with him. The movement together is sweet and satisfying.
The bouncy gives way to melancholy in “Other Eyes.” The tonality of Bloom is astounding and the Helias bass expressions are spot-on. The duet of these two is something amazing. It is full of longing and unfulfillment. The 4-note motif of the bass—with its bent third note—is a cool device for the soprano’s lookaways. The trades between them are soulful and meaningful in their beauty. Wonderful.
Things start to cook with “Rhyme or Rhythm.” Actually, it’s both. The rhythm section is locked-in on the hard groove and Bloom hovers close to the flame in her spiraling melodies. This one smokes.
“Mind Gray River” opens with a bit of Americana-sounding bass. The rolling drums behind the bass offer a wide space for Bloom’s movement and imagery. The soprano is transcendent of the earthy rhythm section and struggles for escape from the boundaries of the bass and drums. This is a folksy meditation.
“Cornets of Paradise” opens with a frenetic exchange of tempos and rhythms and textures. The bass and drums break one way and the sax breaks another. Previte’s drums drive forward and Bloom and Helias surf the wave he provides.
“Say More” brings another soulful episode around, full of space and understated movement. In a piece that says more in the space than it does in the music, “Say More” is a wonderfully ironic title. Bloom, however, takes that space to force tones that are sharp and even piercing. Hold your heart for this one.
“Gateway to Progress” is another hard-swinging piece that Bloom climbs all over. So help me, Jane Ira Bloom can do anything with that horn. Yes, every sax player is influenced by Coltrane to some degree or other but Bloom has learned experimentation and adventure that echoes of the master. Helias works a beautiful bass solo that is just that adventurous. Previte takes to the adventure in equally robust ways with fascinating drumming choices that grab the attention.
“Big Bill” has Previte sounding like Bill Bruford in the precise strokes and rolls, although that probably has nothing to do with the title. Bloom follows a fine theme that is rich and exciting. Helias carries the big stick into realms both foreign and familiar. This one is easy to love. And I do.
The album concludes with “Somewhere,” Leonard Bernstein’s adagio from “West Side Story.” It is, of course, a lovely piece and Bloom’s solo soprano sax rendition is exquisite. The tone, the phrasing, the emotion are warm and wonderful. As is the whole album.
Sometimes you encounter the unexpected in Jazz and that is not always a rewarding thing. With Jane Ira Bloom’s “Early Americans,” however, the experience can open one’s eyes to a land unknown and emotions unfamiliar. This album takes you where you have never been…and you don’t want to come back.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl