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JAZZ REVIEW | Big George "One For All" by Jeff Cebulski


One For All

Big George

Smoke Sessions Records

By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️


The NYC-based ensemble One For All has carried the post bop mantle for over 25 years, featuring some of the most consistently solid musicians in recent memory: tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis, pianist David Hazeltine, and drummer Joe Farnsworth, usually including bassist John Webber. A new album is always an event for the group’s longtime fans (like me), and I am happy to report that Smoke Sessions’ Big George, including the sax great George Coleman, finds them, and their guest, in good form.


Big George is meant as an homage to Coleman, who is often cited as a significant influence on a generation of players. Beloved among the NYC jazz clientele, the veteran saxophonist dominates the center portion of the new collection, including a terrific improvisation on the classic “My Foolish Heart,” which should be an early candidate for solo performance of the year.


As for the others, Rotondi’s appearance in the midst of a two-year recording splurge finds him as sharp as ever; Alexander, coming off an under-noticed alto excursion, holds tenor sway while respectfully stepping aside as Coleman demonstrates his lasting excellence; Davis continues his growth both in playing and composing; Hazeltine comps with the best and delivers tasteful solos that always mesh with the groove; and Farnsworth, especially, is energized and in his glory as a masterful support for people he clearly cherishes. Webber, as he has done in the past (notably during the band’s Criss Cross era) provides his own solid support—nothing fancy, but just right.


The album seems to be organized like a live event: the first three songs feature the classic ensemble; Coleman joins for three more; then the band closes out, nine selections in all lasting just under an hour.


Alexander’s “Chainsaw,” with a funky ambiance, sounds like a Lee Morgan outtake. Rotondi wastes little time reestablishing himself as a stalwart trumpet lead. Alexander and Davis follow with their own statements while Farnsworth embellishes the beat with Higgins-like precision.


Hazeltine’s “In the Lead” carries a soft Bossa cadence into a swinging post bop display led by Alexander. Again the remaining soloists add commentary while the energetic Farnsworth pounds away.


“Edgerly” is Davis’s composition and first lead solo, a lyrical statement matched by Rotondi’s response, Alexander’s relay run, and Hazeltine’s brief solo before Farnsworth bridges the proceedings.


Coleman is then called to the ‘stage’ for “Oscar Winner,” which became more appealing to me as a metaphoric representation of an actual award ceremony. The ensemble pronounces the theme music, and then Big George gives an acceptance speech—when I imagined him being that winner, his solo took on a Clark Terry sheen as a colloquially grateful achiever. Davis then appears, perhaps, as the film producer, and the others as supporting cast. 


But “My Foolish Heart” is the show stopper, even if the tune has been recorded over and over again. Coleman here channels another Coleman, Mr. Hawkins, starting low and soulfully advancing the melody before a solo lovingly supported by a well-recorded and mixed Hazeltine, Webber, and Farnsworth. The drummer’s affinity for tasteful support is noted as Coleman glides through his extended soliloquy.


Then, almost as an encore, Coleman pushes the proceedings on Hank Mobley’s “This I Dig of You,” leading with hard bop verve as the other horns provide a chorus. The 89-year-old’s inventive approach is impressive, as he punctuates his runs with high and low notes, seemingly challenging his partners to match him. Hazeltine takes the hint first, and an itchy Farnsworth follows before Coleman and Davis can’t help but join in.


The final three items are listed as “Bonus Tracks” on the Bandcamp site. Davis’s “Cave Island Breeze” swings as the title implies. Perhaps inspired by Coleman’s performance, Alexander soulfully leads a rendition of “The Nearness of You.” The finale “Leemo” is a blues treat composed by Rotondi that sounds like a twist on “Dat Dere.” Webber gets the lead before the ensemble settles into a pleasurable groove, and this reviewer thinks the producers faded the recording too early.


One For All has been together long enough to have its own ‘eras’. My favorite is the Criss Cross era, when the band, in my estimation, swung harder and dug a bit deeper. This new release on Smoke Sessions would fit into that zone; with Big George along for the ride, Big George the album is a welcome return to form by one of America’s finest music collaborations.


One For All, Big George. Smoke Sessions Records, 2024.


PERSONNEL

Jim Rotondi, trumpet

Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone

Steve Davis, trombone

David Hazeltine, piano

John Webber, bass

Joe Farnsworth, drums

George Coleman, guest tenor saxophone



About Jeff Cebulski

Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at jeff@chicagojazz.com

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