If Ronin, the title of the new album from baritone sax player B.J. Jansen, conjures up images of exotic Japanese music, it would be somewhat misleading. Jansen’s music is pure bred American modern jazz. The only obvious thing Asian-themed about this album is the title.
As Jansen explains on the liner, the title of the album is really meant as a comment on the plight of the jazz musician given the state of today’s musical marketplace. A rōnin, he tells us, was a samurai knight with no lord or master to support him. Law forbid them to work, so many fell into poverty and crime; some into disgrace and suicide. Jansen sees the state of the rōnin in medieval Japan as analogous to that of the musician today: “The plight of the rōnin draws many similarities to what I have observed with those of us who adopt the way, or follow a life of the study of the art and craft of instrumental improvised music.”
The jazz musician is the modern day rōnin: “We artists persist as warriors and keepers of the flame, devoting out lives to the propagation of the Music.” Both the rōnin and the jazz artist keep alive their respective traditions in an uncaring, often hostile world. They are warriors. Indeed, in an interview on Harlem’s WHCR, Jansen compares his baritone of the rōnin’s sword. They are both weapons in the battle against the adversity of the age. It is no accident that jazz men call their horn their “axe.”
Leading a quartet featuring pianist Mamiko Watanabe, bassist Mike Boone, and drummer Chris Beck, Jansen runs through a program of nine original compositions spotlighting solid straight-ahead solo work and offering some very fine dynamic improvisation. Some of the highlights include the bluesy “Best Friend,” and the tender ballad “Rose for Noriko.” “Manhattan Trane’in” makes a nod to the great sax man, and although the C.P. in “Blues for C. P.” is not identified, one can think of at least one possibility. The set ends with, “The Code,” a real bop burner.
With modern day rōnin like B. J. Jansen around to keep the flame lit, there will always be that glimmer of light even in the darkest of days.