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Shelley Yoelin - Secret Steps

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Shelley Yoelin
CD / Album
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Blujazz Records

Having abided in Chicago for almost twenty years and fancying myself a bit of a historian of the scene, I'm continually surprised at the depth of the jazz community in the city. There are so many fine musicians who remain obscure. The magnificent seven assembled here have been embedded in the trenches for varying stretches and to be fair to listeners at large, commitments to teaching, studio work and sideman activity has dimmed their profile, yet scarcely impaired prowess. A glance at the septet's résumés reveals broad versatility - gigs with Cologne's WDR Big Band, the Lyric Opera and the American Ballet Theater mix with accompaniment to vocal legends Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Stevie Wonder and Al Jarreau, not to mention instrumental artists like Joe Lovano and Barry Harris. Leader, tenor saxist Shelley Yoelin, has made a number of recordings and performed everywhere from London's Barbican Center to Munich Opera House to Carnegie Hall with the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band and then his own Modern Klezmer Quartet. But the core of the septet convened during annual tutoring sessions at Jamey Aebersold's storied Summer Jazz Workshops in Louisville Kentucky. Yoelin, who refers to the indefatigable education guru Aebersold as "a saint of a man" was first hired as faculty some thirty four years ago after attending the summer school himself several times. Bassist Rich Armandi and trombonist Tim Coffman also worked with Aebersold and trumpeter Steve Thomas was invited to join the Jazz Workshop faculty a decade ago, hence the title of this group. The remainder of the school year Yoelin busied himself at Triton Community College in the Western Suburbs of Chicago, directing big bands and combos, teaching theory and history - even choir - until his retirement in 2007. Trombonist Coffman meantime has been integral to the renowned faculty at DePaul University for sixteen years. Despite the relative youth of Thomas and drummer Justin Kramer, who are in their early 30s and early 40s, since the rest of the group are pushing late 50s and 60s, you might be forgiven for expecting these dyed-in-the-wool educators and sessioneers to sound pedantic, or at least fairly worn out. Faggedaboudit! From start to finish this record crackles with virile chops and bonhomie and all nine cuts are originals, no sleepy standard fare here. The title track by Yoelin is a novel conflation of the harmony to Sammy Fain's "Secret Love" and John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." It bounds out the gate like a breezily disarming ditty simply because the ensemble execute the head with such confidence and panache (borne of weekly blowing at Chicago's Kasper's Café, where they've held down a gig for a couple years). Yoelin wrote the tune back in the 80s part inspired by the melodic phrases of saxophone god, and fellow Aebersold clinician, Dave Liebman, but he didn't settle on the title until recently. Amusingly Coffman vetoed the alternate title composite "Giant Love," though that might have matched the unashamed joy of pianist Bobby Schiff's contributions "Wonder Bop" and "A Beautiful Sweetheart." The latter pays homage to Schiff's wife of three and a half years. Craft as an orchestrator, learned on the job during the halcyon days of Chicago's legendary Universal Studios, is amply on display in the way Schiff frames the horns during this poignant ballad. A self confessed 'newly wed,' Schiff met wife Natasha in a cornfield in Ohio almost by chance and now makes annual migrations to see friends and relatives in Russia. For bassist Armandi, love interest takes him even further, since his other half is Japanese. After he met his wife however (at another life altering Aebersold camp coincidentally), he enjoyed the cute refrain that heralds Japanese underground trains when he was performing at an theme resort outside Nagasaki. Armandi echoes the eight note phrase known throughout Japan's transport system as an intro to his "Namba Samba" before Brazilian flavors are added by Kramer and Danny Faith's congas, as well as the bassist's tumbao pulse. Rhythm is a strong feature of this record and the New Orleans roots of jazz are celebrated on "Diddly Dance", with a handclapped fanfare. Yoelin's title references Chicago raised bluesman Bo Diddley's patent five accent riff, over which Armandi gives us a nice solo through the harmonic colorations abetted by second line snare'n' rim work from Kramer. Thomas quotes from Ellington's "Caravan," and offers a snippet of Coltrane's "Mr PC" during his exciting "Restless Maiden." Inspired by Chick Corea's composition "Litha" swingtime alternates with Afro-Cuban 6/8 on "Restless Maiden," which shares the hallmarks of a classic Jazz Messengers track circa Freddie Hubbard's tenure with Blakey. Nice bobsleigh solo from Schiff here. Coffman has the boppish fluidity of J.J.Johnson and penned the richly harmonized "Kasper's Blues" to commemorate the septet's residency at the eponymous Café, note the Joe Henderson-like rhythmic playfulness during Yoelin's solo. The leader, like any self respecting educator/arranger/composer, looks for fresh ways to channel the action, importing some of his klezmer influence with the inclusion of Robert Applebaum's "Eastern Fun," and changing the vibe again on "Goin' Out." "It 'goes out' on the changes," says Yoelin about this pedal point modal structure, "using harmonic, parallel scales, a sus chord moving to the Phrygian mode to Locrian, back to a sus chord - different modes to create harmonic variety." Naturally Yoelin's pedigree as an Aebersold disciple and established pedagogue (he has contributed transcriptions of Mike Brecker and Liebman solos to Downbeat over the years) mean all his crew are on the case and brook no nonsense. More crucial than correctness and jazz hagiography however is the question "Do they get across?" The answer is a resounding "yes!" - these close knit comrades are clearly having a ball. Yoelin recently fully restored the signal red 1969 series II Fixed Head Coupe Jaguar E type (not to spare minutia) on the CD cover to it's former glory. It's a timeless classic and bespeaks his attention to detail and form. If you have a talent for humming fairly complex heads, there's a few earworms on this CD that seem to possess an instant vintage too. Indelibly stamped. Michael Jackson October 2012.

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Shelley Yoelin - Secret Steps.

1) Secret Steps
2) Wonder Bop
3) Namba Samba
4) A Beautiful Sweetheart
5) Diddly Dance
6) Kasper's Blues
7) Eastern Fun
8) Goin' Out
9) Restless Maiden

Secret Steps
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Secret Steps | Shelley Yoelin