It has been three years since her 2009 debut Confeddie put saxophonist Hailey Niswanger on the jazz map. While she has expanded her arsenal to include not only alto, but also soprano saxophone, as well as greatly increased her composing (eight of the 11 tunes are originals, versus one original on the debut), Niswanger has kept her traditionalist approach basically the same. This is a good thing, as she and her ensemble deliver a solid set of straight-ahead jazz.
Three standards pay tribute to past masters, including Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” Thelonious Monk’s “Played Twice,” and Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” The Porter classic is treated as an intimate duet between Niswanger and pianist Takeshi Ohbayashi. Niswanger shows off a sweet soprano tone on “Played Twice.” Highlighting “Milestones” is the trumpet playing of Darren Barrett, who guests on three tracks.
Barrett also enlivens the already-intense “Tale of Dale,” which opens with some inventive interplay with Niswanger. Their solos contrast richly, with the bandleader screaming insistently through her sax, while Barrett later provides mercurial lines before the two join again to close the track with a calmer musical dialogue. “Norman” is a lovely, melodic ballad which features a smoothly-played solo by bassist Max Moran. Slowing things down to an even more deeply contemplative level is “Balance,” which is another sterling showcase for Niswanger’s soprano. Mark Whitfield Jr. builds the intensity level with his increasingly tumultuous drumming on this tune.
The album is dedicated to Niswanger’s late instructor and friend, Jeff Cumpston. In the album’s liner notes, Niswanger explains that the best way she could pay tribute to her mentor was through “music and composition.” The title track, which closes the album, begins with an extended intro by Whitfield that seems to highlight the personal nature of the composition while simultaneously heralding the climax of the album. Niswanger’s soloing on this original tune is some of her most inspired; questing, yearning, and pushed forward by Whitfield’s deft rhythms. It’s a fine way to close The Keeper.