Monday, May 7, 2012

Dan Wilensky: Back in the Mix

Speechless Productions
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Back in the Mix

This album once again demonstrates what can happen when a group of talented musicians — pursuing their own careers in the New York City area — get together and produce some really nice jazz. 

Saxophonist Dan Wilensky was born into a musical family; every member of the household played at least one instrument. Dan started playing piano when he was 8; he switched to sax after hearing the Duke Ellington band at his high school in Berkeley, California. Wilensky truly loved to play; if he couldn’t find a band, he “street-played,” attended and performed at jazz festivals, and sat in with visiting groups. (One latter highlight was an appearance with Woody Herman.)

The summer after high school, Wilensky heard that Ray Charles was looking for a lead alto; the young saxman auditioned and got the job. Wilensky eventually moved to New York, where he has been working steadily.

Back in the Mix features his regular quintet: pianist Mark Soskin, bassist Dean Johnson, drummer Tony Moreno and trumpeter Russ Johnson. All these musicians are first-call artists: Soskin has worked with Sonny Rollins, Randy Brecker and Herbie Mann; Dean Johnson has played with Lee Konitz, Dave Grusin, Joe Lovano and Gerry Mulligan (the latter during a 10-year period). Moreno is one of the most sought-after percussionists in the New York area. while Russ Johnson currently tours with Konitz and is on the faculty at Queens College.

Six of these nine tracks are originals by Wilensky, and he arranged the remaining three standards: Cole Porter's "Falling in Love with Love," Gross & Lawrence’s "Tenderly" and J.J. Johnson’s "Lament." The result is a smooth mix of balladic and mid-tempo tunes: a pleasure to hear and (surprise!) quite danceable. The melodic lines and variations are established by the sax and trumpet duo, supported ably by the solid rhythm section. Each artist has opportunities to solo, and the results are innovative and excellent. 

This relaxed group will hold your attention and — if the venue permits — encourage you to don those slow-dancing shoes ... and we don't get nearly enough opportunities for the latter these days.

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