Hailey Niswanger was still a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music when her 2009 debut, Confeddie, was released. The 22-year-old saxophonist has since graduated, but her follow-up shows plenty of evidence that Niswanger is still doing her homework.
This time out she’s tipped the balance in favor of originals (eight of this disc’s 11 tracks, as opposed to a single composition on its predecessor) and added soprano sax to her arsenal, but otherwise she’s continued in a similar vein, retaining her firm mooring in the straightahead tradition. The three covers — one each by Monk and Miles, plus a duet with pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi on a casual, intimate read of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” — tell you all you need to know about Niswanger’s direction. Unlike many of her peers, who attempt to integrate every style from their iPod into their music, Niswanger travels a direct path back to her forebears, beginning with the Coltrane-inspired opener “Scraps.” The airy ballad “Balance,” a showcase for the saxophonist’s serpentine soprano, also evokes Trane, its melody strongly hinting at “Naima.”
For this release, Niswanger assembled a band of like-minded fellow Berklee alums. Bassist Max Moran spins a woody, broad-shouldered solo from the gentle stroll of “Norman,” while drummer Mark Whitfield Jr. offers a thunderous rumble to open the title track. Trumpeter Darren Barrett joins for three tracks, forming a frontline with the leader that wouldn’t feel out of place on a decades-old Blue Note release. As it is, on this release, Niswanger proves herself a strong player and an able composer, though she walks a fine line between paying tribute to her heroes and being shackled by them. —Shaun Brady