by Raul da Gama
Every once and awhile a record comes across the critic’s desk that so overwhelms him or her that a long pause for breath is in order. But one has to usually wait until well into an artist’s discography to discover a record such as that. This is not the case with Strunkin’ by Leigh Pilzer though. Ordinarily, one would not be surprised by a newcomer who’s also winning awards. Leigh Pilzer is an astral being of a baritone saxophonist that comes only once in a generation, a talent so rare that even the sharp eye of a Hubble has to be quick off the mark. Pilzer – it has to be said – defies even the odds of finding a genius in the pool of talented artists rushing to fill every vacancy in small, medium and large ensembles today. Genius? Wait a minute; that’s a rather brazen assessment after just one album. In the curious case of Leigh Pilzer genius shines with an electrifying flash.
Strunkin’ proffers its explosive fare from the opening bars of its title piece. Memories of not simply Harry Carney, Pepper Adams and great living elder statesmen such as Ronnie Cuber seem to meet somewhere between Pilzer’s head and heart and are brought to fruition in great gulps of air between her lungs and her lips. What emerges is a vivid display of the light and dark of the ‘human’ voice of the baritone saxophone. The cheers at the end of the piece remind us that this music is being made live and despite the lead sheets spotlighted discretely before each musician, one is awestruck by the immediacy of the spontaneous inventions. There are just eight tunes on the album, but each is explored with remarkable facility on the part of each of the all-woman ensemble. The seemingly innocuous charm of “Blue Moo” and “Miss Ally in Allyworld” will also catch like emotional lumps in the throat. In these and other songs each member of the quintet feeds off the visceral energy of the other musicians and as a result you will hear a great ocean of sound emerging from your speakers.
They’d better be good speakers because there’s no stopping Leigh Pilzer from bringing arresting dynamics and colour shadings to contrast the roaring aspects of her doppelgänger Jen Krupa’s trombone. Their interplay evokes vivid images of a kind of musical DNA as lines entwine in counterpoint, dancing seemingly interminably. “Brag Time” is a superb example, but the album has many moments of this, and other delights, as woodwinds and brass poke and prod, nudge and jostle each other while climbing to great heights. There is also a constant reminder that this ensemble also includes three other exciting musical voices: bassist Amy Shook, whose elongated, elegant notes on “Thaddish” stretch an already wonderful song to the limits of ecstatic worship of one of the greatest writers and orchestrators in Jazz Mr. Thad Jones. The eminent rhythm section also includes the irrepressible Sherrie Maricle on drums, whose star turns never go unnoticed; as well as Jackie Warren who will forever be remembered for the panoply of rich harmonic possibilities that she brings to every piece.
These performances are not only memorable for the exemplary concert that juxtaposes finesse with zest, but the pleasure of listening is also heightened by wonderful engineering by Leigh Pilzer’s equally talented sibling, Charlie.