Michael Eaton's 'The Phenomenal' (Mother Brain Records)

Saxophonist and composer Michael Eaton announces the July 5, 2024 release of his third album as a leader, The Phenomenal, on the Kansas City, MO-based Mother Brain Records. After two studio albums on Destiny Records, Individuation (2014) with NEA Jazz Master David Liebman and Dialogical (2016) with guitarist Lionel Loueke, Eaton, and Individuation return with a new installment of minimalist-inspired, 20th-century classical, and electronically-inflected modern jazz. Here "phenomenal" signals the opportunities and vicissitudes of navigating the material world; that which appears in our senses and the place in which our lived experience happens.

Recorded after eight years and three tours of Individuation's history as an ensemble, The Phenomenal features Brad Whiteley (piano), Daniel Ori (bass), and Shareef Taher (drums). In the wake of the Covid pandemic, Eaton felt an urgency to bring together three musicians with whom he had been working before and during lockdown: Tim Hagans (trumpet), Dave Scott (trumpet), and Judi Silvano (voice). When a live recording proved ultimately unworkable, a plan crystallized to document the band's latest music over two studio dates in the last quarter of 2021.

The first session pairs Individuation with a remarkable trumpet duo, Tim Hagans and Dave Scott. Two trumpet recordings are all too infrequent in jazz, but The Phenomenal captures the first time meeting and studio encounter of Hagans and Scott. Eaton remarks, "I have had the great fortune of making music with and learning from both Tim and Dave, and I had a feeling their 'different yet the same' approaches would generate sparks in the studio. I'm thrilled that we could document their invention and musical chemistry."

Hagans is front and center on the electroacoustic drum-n-bass jazz of "Imagination and Understanding, " an homage to Eaton's interest in Hagans' innovative Animation/Imagination for Blue Note Records in the late 1990s, but also to Immanuel Kant on imagination and free play. Framed by Whiteley's synth, the piece loops a twelve-tone bass line with muscular solos from Hagans and Eaton. With his characteristic beam of trumpet sound, Hagans unleashes a rapid-fire chromatic solo with cutting clarity. Hagans is also heard to great effect on "Parallax, " inspired by the technique of parallax scrolling in 2D video games, where a background moving slower than the foreground (i.e. layers of different speeds) generates the illusion of depth. This is translated musically into layers of rhythms and a looped, motivically-driven melody that slowly reshapes itself.

Scott's darker-hued sound and quicksilver, serpentine lines are exemplified in "Kansas City Counterpoint, " a twelve-minute meditation on Eaton's roots. "Dave is from Kansas City, Missouri, and so am I. Musically I was taking inspiration from Steve Reich's 'Electric Counterpoint' - the original Nonesuch recording features one of Dave's teenage friends, KC native Pat Metheny - but moreover Reich's 'New York Counterpoint.' In terms of counterpoint, there is a lot of interplay and layering of rhythms." Scott's solo arrives halfway through the piece's four different rhythmic domains, soaring around, over, and through the modal landscape.

"Multiple Worlds" features the Hagans/Scott team again but originated in 2006 during Eaton's years in Bloomington, Indiana. After a prismatic melody and saxophone solo, a twelve-tone vamp uncoils in the second half. Scott and Hagans immediately dive in, holding a summit-level conversation and finishing each other's sentences. "I was thinking of tunes from both players which were very chromatic, ambiguous, or had twelve-tone elements, like Tim's tune 'Space Dozen'. I had a sense this tune was their legerdemain, perfect for them. It was thrilling to hear them be themselves in real time in that atmosphere."

"Blues and the Phenomenal Truth" finds the septet converging on a blues, giving everyone a chance to improvise on common ground. After an open, intervallic head moves into a mixed meter contrapuntal vamp, the players take turns on the tune's cyclic changes. "The title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Oliver Nelson's 'Blues and the Abstract Truth'. I never particularly knew what that meant, but it didn't matter; it was fun for one, but it was a poetic device to evoke imagination and contemplation. I thought about the title 'Blues and the Nominal Truth', but then 'Blues and the Phenomenal Truth' had an intuitive ring to it."

Recording session two features the final guest of honor, Judi Silvano, with whom Eaton had been improvising in NYC-based flutist Cheryl Pyle's Beyond Group, a free improvising chamber group. "Thanks to Cheryl's organizing, we did a lot of improvising online during the pandemic on Zoom, " Eaton says, "and it became a real musical outlet during a time when we couldn't leave the house. Therefore, it felt natural to highlight Judi's artistry. She has an organic, spontaneous melodic conception that is a pleasure to interact with. In more extended and sonic territory, she has a refreshingly playful spirit."

Silvano's presence is keenly felt on Altarpiece No. 1, written for the Hilma af Klint painting of the same name and inspired by Eaton's 2019 visit to the Guggenheim's af Klint exhibition. Over a melody harmonized with bitonal chords, the soprano voice and soprano saxophone resonate with an expressionist ambiance, shifting next to a twelve-tone contrapuntal interlude that builds to a free improvisation with piano, voice, and saxophone. "There were two objectives here. One was to reflect or transmit something of Hilma's thinking via my musical voice. And second, to capture the chemistry in those Beyond Group sessions. I think we were successful on both counts."

Silvano's soprano blends like a horn with Eaton and Scott on "Kansas City Counterpoint", offsetting Ori's additive bass line with digital punctuations. "I was thinking of Joe Lovano's Universal Language ensemble with Joe, Tim Hagans, and Judi, " Eaton smiles. A rich lyricism adept at thinking on its feet pervades Silvano's improvisation, with her wordless narrative escalating to abandon over Coltrane-like thundering accompaniment.

The sole quartet tune and album opener, "Folk Song" is an odd meter minor melody tapping into the quartet's near-decade-long chemistry. Shareef Taher takes the reins immediately with a frame drum-like solo using hands on the snare drum, but the environment opens out onto an expansive 5/4 vista for solos. Brad Whiteley exhibits the clarity as a soloist and dynamism as an accompanist that show why he is in such demand as an NYC professional, and Daniel Ori upholds the ostinatos with a soulful sensibility tinged with years of folk and groove music.

So The Phenomenal emerges as a portrait of an ensemble organically moving toward a sound of its own. "We live a postmodern internet world with vast quantities of information available at any time. I surely love the whole history of the music but never wanted to be strictly beholden to that. The history - actually histories, plural - of jazz are our tools and raw material. I want to use the tradition; I don't want it to use me. My individuation will be the product of trying and doing hopefully many things musically. Without a doubt, making integrated, unified statements is a high artistic goal and one that will never go out of style. I like having multiple worlds on one recording, and I venture to say that this reflects something of the world as it is today. In order for jazz to be a living and evolving music, we need, at least to some degree, to remain open to the world and to change."


Folk Song
Multiple Worlds
Imagination and Understanding
Altarpiece No 1
KC Counterpoint
Blues and the Phenomenal Truth

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