Saxophonist Stacy Dillard has been around for a few years, but was unknown to me until J.D. Allen dropped his name as a peer in our interview. I decided to check out his work, and got hold of two albums—2009’s One, on the Smalls label, and this one, his debut for Criss Cross, released in March of this year. He’s got two others that I haven’t heard…yet.
One was a swirling, Fender Rhodes-driven effort that drifted back and forth between vintage soul jazz and the more atmospheric feel of Miles Davis‘s In a Silent Way. Good and Bad Memories, by contrast, is an almost purely acoustic effort, except for the work of guitarist Craig Magnano, who also appeared on One. He and Dillard are joined by pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Ryan Berg, and drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons for a set of eight very traditional hard bop tunes, two of which—”Over and Over” and “Stizzozo”—also appeared in slightly shorter versions on One.
Dillard’s compositions are simple, bluesy choruses built as sturdy platforms for melodic soloing. There’s nothing showily complex about his work; he’s not as interested in displaying technique, or carrying out complicated harmonic or rhythmic stunts, as, say, Walter Smith III, Ambrose Akinmusire or Jason Moran (all of whose work I enjoy). I’d liken him to Hank Mobley, a guy who played down the middle, aiming for the heart or the gut rather than the head. And there’s no shame at all in being Hank Mobley. In fact, it’s a far greater shame that his work isn’t as appreciated today as that of some of his contemporaries. I suspect Stacy Dillard may be less of a critics’ darling than some of his peers, but I also suspect he’d be a real pleasure to see live.
The album opens with “Pleasant,” a tune that starts out living up to its title in an almost placid fashion but soon becomes a barn-burner with plenty of solo space for Magnano, Evans and the leader. This sets up a pattern which recurs throughout the disc; Dillard always grants plenty of space to his sidemen, sometimes even seeming like a reluctant leader, with the result that six of the eight tracks go past the seven-minute mark, and two of them (“There’s No Need” and “Stizzozo”) are more than nine minutes long. They’re never boring, though, even when the musicians are playing firmly within the hard bop tradition. The production is crisp and clear, with Berg’s bass thick and rubbery and Clemons’ drums sharp, especially his swift attacks on the toms. Dillard’s horn is buzzy and human, lacking the bludgeoning force of Sonny Rollins or David S. Ware but also avoiding the 1930s nostalgia of, say, late-period Archie Shepp. Magnano is a very clean player, more in the manner of Jim Hall than Grant Green, let’s say. And Orrin Evans is as fleet and inscrutable as ever.
Dillard and a version of this band (the guitar slot is listed as TBD) will be performing Tuesday night, July 12, at the Jazz Standard in New York. Based on this album, it ought to be a very solid set of melodic, mainstream jazz—no stunts, no compositional gimmickry, just dudes who can play getting up and doing so. Lately, that’s all I want. YMMV.
Stream the album on Spotify: