On his two previous albums, With John in Mind (2003) and Live at Yoshi’s (2005), saxophonist Steve Heckman’s sound was rooted in the music of John Coltrane. He was all of 15 years old when he first heard Trane, and his tenor sax was both a revelation and an inspiration to the youth. Critical reaction to Heckman’s first two albums emphasized the Coltrane connection. If you were looking for a genius to model your playing on, you couldn’t go wrong with the man. On the other hand, there comes a time when an artist wants his roots to grow and blossom. There comes a time when he needs to develop a voice of his own. Born to Be Blue, his new CD due for release May 14, has Heckman taking those Coltrane roots and making them his own.
Limiting himself to tenor and soprano sax on his earlier albums, the new disc has the multi-reed player working with alto sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet as well. His playing is fluid and lyrical, his tone at times like a fine brandy—smooth and strong. Joined by guitarist Howard Alden, pianist Matt Clark, Marcus Shelby on bass, and drummer Akira Tana, Heckman delivers a tight, introspective set that has jazz standards breathing with new life as well as a new song or two. A tune like “How Deep is the Ocean” gets a straight-ahead swinging treatment with some intense interplay between Heckman, Alden, and drummer Tana. It is a masterful piece of work.
The Van Heusen/Mercer tune “I Thought About You” is handled as a tasty duet between Heckman on clarinet and Alden’s guitar. Heckman plays bass clarinet on “Lazy Afternoon” while the rhythm section sits out. Bill Evans’ “We Will Meet Again,” a little waltz, flows with dancing solos from Heckman, Alden, and Clark. “Without a Song” closes the album with a few Coltrane echoes, combined with some sweet guitar accents. Alden and Heckman work together like the proverbial well-oiled machine.
There are also two Heckman originals on the album. “Andrew’s Pate” honors alto sax man Andrew Speight and “I Remember Zoot” is, of course, an ode to Zoot Sims, another of Heckman’s sax heroes. The album’s title song plus “Alone Together,” the lyrical “Moon and Sand,” and “The Things We Did Last Summer” (with another of those masterful guitar/tenor sax duets) round out the album.
If you haven’t heard Heckman’s work, give Born to Be Blue a listen. It is straight-ahead swinging jazz played with panache. I think you’ll like what you hear. I know I did.