An underappreciated saxophonist in the limelight

  • June 25, 2013

Bay area tenor saxophonist Dann Zinn (who also sometimes plays the flute) may not be prominent or recognized, but he is well regarded as a sideman (Joe Henderson, the Yellowjackets’ Russ Ferrante, Freddie Hubbard, and Mary Wells are just a some of the names on his résumé); educator (director of jazz studies at CSU-East Bay and director of the San Francisco Jazz Festival High School All Star combo; faculty member at UC-Berkeley); and as group leader and live performer.

Zinn’s latest outing, the nearly hour-long Grace’s Song, is assured, straight-ahead jazz (with a few stylistic wrinkles), and is new in two ways: Zinn penned six originals (there are also new arrangements of two covers); and he presents his new quartet, adding piano to his line-up. Alongside Zinn is virtuoso pianist Taylor Eigsti (as a teen, he joined the Stanford Jazz Workshop’s teaching staff at age 15. But he now calls New York City home; his plentiful studio employment includes dates with Dave Brubeck, Christian McBride, Joshua Redman,James Moody, and countless more; and Eigsti has issued a number of solo records). Rounding out the quartet is bassist John Shifflett (an instructor at San Jose State University, and has worked with Dave Liebman, Ernie Watts, and others; and like Zinn, has been featured on Eigsti projects) and drummer Alan Hall (who also teaches in the Berkeley neighborhood and has a long list of contributive collaborations, comprisingOregon’s Paul McCandless, Jerry Bergonzi, Eddie Harris and more). That’s a foursome with fine musical pedigree, and Zinn’s compositions and arrangements take full advantage of his musical allies.

The group opens with Zinn’s upbeat “Live and Learn,” which has an enunciated swing steered by Eigsti and Zinn. There’s an unusual but subtle meter, and a slight free-form improvisational slant, which lets the musicians break out. While Hall and Shifflett maintain a bristling beat, Zinn soars and Eigsti utilizes a spatial tactic which showcases his heightened sense of harmonics. There are two other notable burners: the aptly-named “Jumpstep,” which must be a crowd pleaser in concert; and the undeniably grooving “Red Rover,” where Hall sinuously courses along, and Zinn goes for the higher notes and then goes further.  Zinn gets abstrusely modern on “Western Skies,” where he uses what sounds like a harmonizer to push his horn into electronic effects, somewhat akin to a mix of Eddie Harris and John Klemmer. The tune is speedy but not overdriven. Even at the most abstract moments (which once or twice evoke John Coltrane), Zinn is eloquent and keeps a cheerful quality, not a simple task. The title track is a definite highpoint, which commences as an affectionate ballad with a memorable and lyrical melody, then gradually transforms into a blues-buttressed anthem. Shifflett appends a slow, tender solo, and then Eigsti puts in elegant excursions, and Zinn creates a cozy tenor tone reminiscent of Watts.

The longest number is a translation of the Police hit, “King of Pain.” Anyone acquainted with the philosophical song written and sung by Sting might wonder if it is ripe for improvisation, but Zinn and his band demonstrate, that in their hands, the radio-familiar track indeed can be developed in a jazz vein. After establishing the ear-catching main theme, the foursome ebb down and drift into a darkened soundscape, where Zinn manages somehow to invoke both Anthony Braxton’s brazen avant-garde streaks and Jan Garbarek’s icy timbre. Eigsti follows suit with equally deepened keyboard flourishes. As a unit, the players turn Sting’s comparatively limited pop piece into an absorbingly moody panorama. The foursome concludes with one of the most famous standards of all time: Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust.” Zinn takes command of this one, while piano, bass and drums deliver a sympatric rhythmic foundation. Zinn does not revolutionize the celebrated classic (there are approximately 1,500 versions now and counting), rather he upholds Carmichael’s melancholy intent, and Zinn’s tenor sound is picturesque and gentle, a nice way to end the program.

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