They say good things come to those who wait, and Upstream, the debut album by the trio led by drummer Ben Perowsky, along with John Medeski on organ and Chris Speed on saxophone and clarinet, has been a long time coming. Though it was recorded in 2014, a number of factors kept Perowsky from putting this album out into the world, not the least of which was the birth of his child, but now the time has come.
There is little need to extol the virtues of these players. Anyone who follows modern jazz will know their names. The approach on Upstream is, in some ways, relatively straightforward, but their collective breadth of experience allows them to approach the compositions in exciting and unexpected ways.
Album opener “Dania,” a Jaco Pastorius composition, is a case in point. The performance immediately drives home the sparse sound of the trio, but generates interest through its skittering and nimble rhythms. After a few tricky bars, they fall into an almost conventional soul jazz mode, with Medeski’s organ providing the central axis around which Perowsky and Speed spin. The saxophone traces the chords and melody out in unexpected ways. When Medeski comes in for his own solo, he leans a bit more into the Hammond’s percussive qualities, bringing him into congruence with the others.
Perowsky penned three of the pieces here himself. “Kanape” resembles the opener in its exciting rhythmic interplay. “Paul” is a moving tribute to the late drummer Paul Motian, but also references “I Am the Walrus,” giving a slight nod to McCartney as well. The track is as intense as it is slow, somehow both relaxed yet slightly dirge-like. “Love and Apocalypse” is his third composition and it closes the album out. This one’s even slower, starting out as little more than an organ swell and drum accents. When Chris Speed enters, he brings a Coltrane-ish vibe of yearning and searching to the music. At times, Medeski echoes Speed’s lines with his right hand while the left plays gospel-tinged chords. Perowsky’s rolls and fills give the piece its sense of forward motion, and as it draws to a close, the drums fall out first.
The trio also works through “Face on the Barroom Floor” by Wayne Shorter and “Sidecar” by Miles Davis. The former is another slow number, but highly melodic, while the latter is much funkier, and honestly wouldn’t feel out of place on a Medeski, Martin and Wood album. Speaking of MMW, the Medeski-penned song “Worms” was originally recorded by them. Here, Speed attacks the jaunty melody with his clarinet and the whole thing seems to hint more at Tzadik’s Radical Jewish Culture series than the jazz/jam-band hybrid style of MMW. Medeski also contributed “Meta” to the album, an understated and probing piece that once again finds the trio bringing a sense of calm unpredictability to the material. The track builds momentum as it goes along, but slows down at the end for a satisfying conclusion.
This trio was almost an inevitability, the three members constantly bumping into one another and playing on sessions together around the NYC jazz scene. While their individual talents alone could certainly carry the weight of a recording, it is evident on Upstream that they have formed a deeper musical bond as well. Since the public has waited for this album to see release, the appetite is now whetted and hopefully there will be more to come soon.
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