By Allen Michie
This is state-of-the-art modern jazz with an up-and-coming lead soloist, well-chosen guests, and a dream rhythm section.
Tobias Meinhart, “The Painter” (Sunnyside)
Born in Bavaria and educated in Switzerland, saxophonist Tobias Meinhart and his jazz quartet Fourscore toured throughout the continent, and the group began racking up prizes in European competitions. But you know how this story goes — every jazz musician must come to New York to see if they are truly world-class. Meinhart may be a less familiar name in the United States than he was set to become in Europe, but he is proving himself, even though he is a smaller fish in a bigger pond. His band can regularly be found in New York’s Blue Note and Birdland clubs. His ninth album as a leader, The Painter, is a fully mature statement by a confident soloist and composer fronting an excellent rhythm section and a tasteful choice of featured guests.
The Painter, like so many other albums of all genres developed in 2020, began as a COVID lockdown project. Meinhart and his friend, painter Igor Sokol, had time for lengthy conversations about the colors of music and the lyricism of art. Thus the compositions for the album began to take shape. While Sokol’s colorful, direct, airy, Matisse-like (some of them anyway) paintings are intriguing to view while listening to The Painter, I don’t find them necessary or all that revealing about the nature of the music. I hear more muted browns, indigo blues, creams, and burgundy reds in Meinhart’s tone and complex compositions.
Meinhart has a dry sound, a kind of fusion of Joe Lovano’s tone, Michael Brecker’s vibrato, and Chris Potter’s lines. It’s an unmistakably contemporary approach, very redolent of today’s jazz. Meinhart plays no discernable clichés and few standard scale patterns. He cites Wayne Shorter as an influence (but then again so does every other living tenor sax player), but I don’t hear a reliance on Shorter’s vocabulary. The band’s music comes out of the Miles Davis ’60s quintet in a general sense, but it’s not limited to that model. I hear more Herbie Hancock in pianist Eden Ladin’s playing than I hear Wayne Shorter in Meinhart’s. (Ladin is a player to watch, by the way. He’s an excellent accompanist and is well on the way to defining his own solo voice.)
The album starts strong with the offbeat “White Bear,” named for Meinhart’s favorite dumpling house in Flushing, Queens. It will not make you think of dumplings. It’s a rhythmically complex tune in 9/8 time that’s an example of how this excellent rhythm section, including bassist Matt Penman and drummer Obed Calvaire, work together seamlessly on even the most challenging material. Calvaire is a busy but precise drummer who pushes the rhythms to one side of the envelope, and pianist Ladin compliments with vaporous abstractions that push the harmonies to the other side of the envelope. Bassist Penman plays the Charlie Haden role, supplying a rich centering tone and often walking it straight down the middle.
There are many moments of sonic creativity without going off the deep end into synthesizer La-La Land or self-justifying studio tricks. “The Painter (Intro)” begins with a great sound — there are (what I believe to be) guitar overtones with reverb in tight unison with an oddly strummed and plucked bass. Unless all the overtones are somehow coming from the bass. It doesn’t really matter because it’s a mysterious, colorful, and unusual sound. The rest of “The Painter” is supplied with grit via the closely miked breath through Meinhart’s horn. His solo has multiphonics, split tones, and the intriguing sound of overblowing but with quiet volume. There is some of Coltrane’s technique in Meinhart’s playing, but little of Coltrane’s signature late style.
Ironically, “Bird Song,” my nominee for best track on the record, is very dark. It starts off with an almost heavy metal vibe — not from Charles Altura’s guitar, but from Meinhart’s breathy low alto flute. There’s a repetitive, somewhat ominous trumpet riff from guest soloist Ingrid Jensen. The song brightens up with the arrival of the main melody, which is supposedly based on the song of the chickadee. But the entry of electric piano with some distracting stereo effects later in the track builds tension. The composition might be in 5/4 time, but Calvaire’s drums keep it free so it can fly off in different directions, like a distracted bird. There’s a simultaneous tenor and trumpet solo, and it’s worth repeated listens to hear these two minds feeding off one another, not so much echoing lines as building textures and impressions together.
Other tracks are more conventional. “Oak Tree” is a lovely ballad featuring Jensen’s famously warm flugelhorn and Penman’s well-recorded bass. It’s a simple meditative melody, fitting for the Buddhist koan the piece is named after. The rhythm section floats behind Jensen’s solo, with rich responsive chords from Ladin on piano, who accompanies beautifully throughout the track (and indeed, throughout the album). Bruno Martino’s “Estate” is the recording’s only standard, a welcome duet between the sax and piano that draws on their compatible sonorities and lyrical orientations. The concluding doubling effect on saxophone, perhaps with Meinhart playing an EWI, is not really necessary, but it’s an expressive sound that isn’t out of place for the piece.
One of the weaknesses of the record is the relative absence of its strengths. It would have been good to hear more of Altura’s processed electric guitar, which has a tone somewhere between Mike Stern’s and Pat Metheny’s (which is a great place to be). When he plays unison lines with Meinhart, it sounds a bit like Metheny and Michael Brecker on MB’s first solo album. Altura performs with super-clean articulation; at times, he sounds almost like a synthesizer keyboard. It would have been great to hear more from him. Likewise for trumpet master Jensen, a longtime mentor of Meinhart’s, who appears on two tracks. You can never have enough of her original and uplifting solos.
The only downer is Meinhart’s reedy, flatly inflected, and vibrato-free vocals on “Dreamers.” Meinhart has much of Chet Baker’s rugged youthful good looks but, unfortunately, little of Baker’s distinctive vocal character. It’s not as bad as Tony Williams’s vocals — Meinhart’s are at least in tune — but surely these musicians could have come up with a vocalist somewhere in New York City who could have made the gig. Meinhart redeems himself by picking up the soprano sax, and I’d like to hear more of him on the straight horn. It’s a great mix when the soprano and guitar unite at the end of “Dreamers” with overlapping solos, one worth exploring in depth on future albums.
This is state-of-the-art modern jazz with an up-and-coming lead soloist, well-chosen guests, and a dream rhythm section. New York suits Meinhart well, and here’s hoping he stays with us for a while.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, TX.