Hailey Niswanger‘s self-produced debut Confeddie was released in 2009 when she was all of 19 years old. The jazz saxophonist, now 21, is currently a student at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. Joining her on Confeddie are fellow Berklee students Michael Palma on piano, Greg Chaplin on bass, and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums. The album is a wonderfully confident straight-ahead jazz workout with inventive playing by the quartet. Niswanger sticks with alto for this album, though she also plays soprano sax, flute, and clarinet.
Niswanger’s playing is emotive throughout, her tone full-bodied and at times appealingly gruff. Thelonious Monk’s “Four In One” opens the album, its challenging head played with confident precision by Niswanger and pianist Michael Palma. Once the rhythm section kicks in, it’s clear this quartet can really swing. Whitfield’s drums are a consistently kinetic point of interest.
After Niswanger’s plainspoken statement of the melody, Palma steps forth on Herbie Hancock’s “Oliloqui Valley,” building an increasingly decorative solo. Niswanger slides in mid-track, seductive at first but quickly gaining intensity. She’s not at all shy about playing aggressively. Kenny Dorham’s “La Mesha” allows her to explore a ballad, resulting in her most melodic playing on the album.
The album’s lone original composition is its title track, a tribute to the late tenor man Eddie Harris. It’s an uptempo, bluesy percolator with excellent ensemble work. Niswanger’s alto digs deep into the groove, spinning off a series angular phrases. The quartet picks up on the vibe, playing with an itchy bounce that packs a ton of exciting ideas into the album’s briefest track.
“Stablemates,” the Benny Golson warhorse, features strong support from the rhythm section with Chaplin taking a brief bass solo. The album closes with a rendition of Wayne Shorter’s “Yes or No.” It’s another prime example of the imagination Niswanger displays in her soloing. She’s also a generous bandleader, allowing drummer Whitfield to pitch in a red hot final solo before she wraps up the album.
Even though I’m a johnny-come-lately, with considerable praise already heaped upon Niswanger’s Confeddie, I’m glad I happened upon it. I’m definitely looking forward to hearing more from her. Visit Hailey Niswanger’s official website for more information.