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The whimsical title of saxophonist and composer Paul Jones’ eight-song quartet date — graphically illustrated by the leader’s sunny smile, flashy Hawaiian shirt and a backdrop of palm trees — suggests a frothy, fun-filled soundtrack for sipping mai tais on the beach. However, with the exception of the title track, a catchy Latin-esque outing set to a generic bossa beat, the program is devoted to decidedly more edgy and intellectually curious fare.
Jones and company — pianist Phil Markowitz, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Clarence Penn — explore a wide range of influences that makes each track distinctive. “Glacier Lake,” thematically dark and probing, reflects an austere Euro-jazz vibe, enhanced by the spare language of contemporary classical stylings. Jones’ tenor sax is tart and airy while Markowitz’s delicate and precise voicings exude the confidence and refined technique associated with a recital hall performance. Elsewhere, Jones taps a more stylistically exuberant reference, as on “Trio 3” and “MR 4,” where he stakes out each composition’s personality trait via repetitive, rapidly articulated two-bar phrases. “MR 2,” one of the session’s most evocative tracks, channels the inciting spirit of a vintage John Coltrane quartet date. The leader’s tenor attack is fiery and strapping against the rhythm section’s thrashing backdrop, and Markowitz pays homage to McCoy Tyner with a barrage of percussive comping. Throughout the program, the pianist’s contributions are technically dazzling and arrestingly creative.
The set closes with Benny Golson’s classic “Stablemates,” a nod to the mainstream and a chance for Jones and the group to shine in a hard-bop setting. Let’s Get Tropical is a challenging but always engaging listen. And it frequently delivers what has long been a hallmark of memorable improvisational music: a genuine sense of surprise. — Mark Holston