An axiom, in the parlance of mathematics, is a self-evident truth that requires no further demonstration. The jazz world, in contrast, has its own self-evident truths—about the importance of swing, creativity, spontaneity and other core virtues—and these are amply demonstrated by Bill Cantrall’s band Axiom. Consider this compact disk as part of the proof—since proof, as you may recall, always rests on axioms.
This impressive live date, recorded at The Kitano in New York, follows on the heels of Cantrall’s top notch debut album Axiom from 2007. Here the trombonist reassembles most of the group from the studio project and elicits from them memorable performances of six Cantrall originals and a Cole Porter standard. “On the very first tune, I could feel that things were jelling,” Cantrall recalls the evening, “it felt right and the solos were happening. I knew that night that I wanted to release it.”
Cantrall, active on the New York scene since the late 1990s, brings a rich array of experiences to his work. His earliest exposure to jazz came via a high school bandleader who gave him a copy of J.J. Johnson’s Proof Positive. (“It’s still one of my favorite albums,” Cantrall notes.) He went on to immerse himself in the music of Curtis Fuller, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter and other classic exponents of hard bop and modern jazz sounds. After high school, Cantrall studied music and engineering at Northwestern, and earned valuable experience in Chicago’s active club scene, where he served as a mainstay in salsa bands and expanded his improvisational skills on jazz gigs.
During this same period, Cantrall was making great strides as a composer. While still an undergraduate, a stint at Stanford’s summer jazz program proved inspiring. Here Jimmy Heath took the trombonist aside and shared his own approaches to harmonization. Some of the music Cantrall wrote during this period found its way into the composition “Shaniece,” featured on this recording.
Cantrall stayed in Chicago for three years after receiving his degree, but in 1998 the trombonist made the move to New York, where both family ties and the energy of the music scene beckoned. Here he pursued a master’s in music at Queens College, where he studied under Sir Roland Hanna, Michael Mossman and Steve Davis. Cantrall also established himself on the New York live music scene, both in Latin and jazz venues.
In recent years, Cantrall has emerged as a skilled bandleader, honing his own distinctive vision of jazz, one steeped in the music’s traditions but also alive to the exigencies of the here and now. As the present disk makes clear, his music is forthright and swinging, built on smartly conceived compositions that bring out first rate playing from the trombonist and his associates.
The opening track “BBM” displays the salient virtues of Cantrall’s craft. The crisp horn lines join in a taut melody over a hard-grooving rhythm section, the ensemble summoning up memories of those celebrated Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Cannonball Adderley bands that set the gold standard for this kind of high-octane combo sound. Cantrall shows his skill in building a solo, gradually raising the energy level over the course of his five choruses, and eventually drawing an array of devices—rhythmic displacements, thematic development, hints of polytonality—as he moves toward a dramatic conclusion. The song’s title, Cantrall explains, came about by happenstance; before he had decided on what to call it, the chart was identified merely by the key signature B flat major, whose symbols “Bb M” were turned into a default title.
“After You,” a little known Cole Porter gem, was introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1932 show The Gay Divorce, where it was over-shadowed by the runaway hit “Night and Day” from the same production. Cantrall reconfigures the work in a nuanced arrangement, mixing a modern jazz sensibility with hints of bossa nova. Here he offers up solo space to pianist Rick Germanson, bassist Gerald Cannon and saxophonist Stacy Dillard (on soprano)—each returnees from Cantrall’s 2007 Axiom project—before Cantrall takes over for two choruses that display his melodicism and burnished tone.
“Sharphead,” an appealing Cantrall minor-key original, is presented in a swinging arrangement. Dillard, now on tenor, offers up a gritty lead-off solo, and Cantrall then digs in with a probing improvisation. Germanson follows with a creative excursion that is funky and cerebral by turns. This Milwaukee native now resident in New York—winner of the American Pianists' Association Jazz Piano Competition in 1996—shows here and elsewhere his perfect mesh with Cantrall’s hard bop sensibility.
Cantrall revisits his ballad “Shaniece,” named for an old friend, which was one of the highlights from his 2007 studio album. The composition sounds deceptively simple, but the unusual 17-bar form and constantly shifting tonal center testify to the bandleader’s ambitions and the rich harmonic palette at his command. The melody line builds on a lulling pattern, a kind of gentle oceanic wave, which is admirably matched by the rhythm section on this track. Solos here are by Cantrall, Dillard (on soprano) and Germanson.
“Like I Said,” in contrast, is an emphatic chart, and reminds me of the not-so-distant day when finger-popping jazz tunes of this sort achieved crossover radio airplay and showed up on jukeboxes. This composition is a soloist’s dream, with Dillard, Cantrall, Germanson and Cannon taking full advantage of their opportunities. Bassist Cannon is another returning participant from the 2007 studio date, and again serves as a catalyst and sparkplug in the rhythm section. Also give credit to drummer Darrell Green who shines on this track and elsewhere on the CD. This Oakland native has graced the bands of Dr. Lonnie Smith, Pharoah Sanders, Stefon Harris, Jeremy Pelt and Red Holloway, and impresses with his drive and dynamism.
“Axiom,” the ensemble’s signature song, also returns from Cantrall’s 2007 project. Here it is presented in an expanded version—at 24 minutes, it is by far the longest track on this disk—with Mike DiRubbo (on alto sax) and Freddie Hendrix (on trumpet) joining the band. Cantrall’s modal piece inspires some of the most daring playing on the date, and both soloists and rhythm section move through various moods, pulses and dynamics in a riveting rendition. The album is capped by a brief exposition of Cantrall’s bluesy original “Maker’s.”
All in all, Cantrall and associates have delivered an exciting, impassioned live date. This is a visionary project from an artist who understands the tradition and knows how to keep it alive and vibrant in the present day. Cantrall is a musician to watch for in the future, and to listen to right now in these stirring tracks.
(Ted Gioia is a jazz critic and music historian. His books include West Coast Jazz, Delta Blues and The History of Jazz.)