Young Jazz Giants

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This debut album by the (very) Young Jazz Giants from South Central Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District is surprising in a number of ways. The first is the label; Birdman simply doesn’t issue jazz records. Secondly, this group was mentored by the late jazz legend Billy Higgins at a World Stage workshop. Lastly are the breadth, depth, and execution of the music itself. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington, pianist Cameron Graves (who was only 16 at the time of this outing), and brothers Stephen and Ronald Bruner on bass and drums, respectively, come off as a seasoned and worldly-wise quartet — augmented on certain tracks by guests from their neighborhood (meaning that the well is even deeper than it seems here). These “Young Lions” are not merely superchoppers who nuance everything to a scientific perfection like so many of the new generation; they are composers who have studied the intricate harmonic and rhythmic concepts of the music they seek to play. The hard bop of Sonny Rollins, the dynamic spiritualism of Coltrane and Andrew Hill, the sheer tautness of Herbie Hancock’s arrangement sensibility, and the dynamic notions of Miles’ early modalism all come into play here. But what is contained in this statement that makes it different is the inherent sense of lyricism and adventure they compose with and the level of inspiration in their performance. Check the finger-popping cadences in Washington’s “Family,” the engaged but never obtrusive blowing on “Tears of Sorrow & Rage,” and the unabashed tenderness in the ballad “Song for Billy,” where the interplay between Graves and Stephen Bruner is nearly breathtaking. There are two funkier soul-jazz cuts with Rhodes playing by Graves and Stephen Bruner playing electric bass. Far from being a distraction, they fill in the grooves with sophistication, honesty, and a tough funkiness that never leaves the realm of swing. The album closes with a very capable and even inspiring version of “Giant Steps,” where the band’s sense of taut, on-the-one finesse is showcased, along with their harmonic sophistication outside the head (yet firmly inside the changes) and their extrapolation of rhythmic and harmonic strategies in the solos. What it all comes down to is a raw excitement. And anticipation as to what these artists — who are already identified with a sound and manner of performance — will sound like in a few years’ time as they develop their composing and arranging skills. Check this out for sure.