Jalen Baker, Be Still Review
Be Still: Jalen Baker’s Nonstop Technical Tour de Force in Modern Jazz
by Nolan DeBuke
There’s a certain vibrancy and dynamism to Jalen Baker’s music that makes it hard to ignore. The Houston-based vibraphonist’s sophomore album, Be Still, presents a fascinating fusion of jazz angels and rhythmic innovation, underscored by an equally admirable and overwhelming intensity.
Emerging from diverse musical backgrounds, the ensemble accompanying the vibraphonist includes Paul Cornish on piano, Gabe Godoy on bass, and Gavin Moolchan on drums. This team of accomplished musicians, each with distinctive voices, come together to form a cohesive unit that exudes a compelling blend of modern jazz with a flavor of gospel, fusion, and funk. The musicians’ collective synergy is evident throughout the album as they traverse the complex terrain of Baker’s compositions and arrangements, matching his intense technical skills with their own intricate executions.
The opening track, “Twas,” immediately sets the tone with a high-energy, multicolored, and layered celebration of modern jazz. A flurry of rhythmic crosscurrents and inventive melodies convey a sense of purpose, a sense of Baker announcing his arrival on the music scene with bravura and technical expertise that is nothing short of impressive.
The title track, “Be Still,” continues on this energetic trajectory. A groove-heavy melody brimming with rhythmic layers, it challenges us to keep up with Baker and pianist Cornish as they dance around each other’s musical ideas in a dazzling display of jazz improvisation.
The album does offer a breather in the form of “Lexi’s Lullaby,” a beautiful composition characterized by contemplative melodies and a subtle fusion of contemporary gospel. It’s refreshing, like a cooling breeze in an otherwise fiery landscape that is Be Still.
“Jinrikisha,” an arrangement of Joe Henderson’s composition, is another piece where the balance of intensity and relaxation could be better calibrated. Bassist Gabe Godoy’s fingers weave a wonderfully melodic solo that shines a bright light on the power of space, blues, and phrasing in the modern jazz context. His skillful handling of pauses establishes a robust rhythmic foundation while allowing the melody to breathe. This poignant solo serves as a bright beacon within the track, illuminating the path for Baker, who delivers one of his most melodically captivating solos on the album. The ensemble signals to the listener: yes, we can take a moment to relax, but not too long, so savor these breaths while you can.
In many ways, the album’s intensity could also be seen as its Achilles’ heel. “Herzog,” for instance, is a blistering performance of modern jazz, but the relentless pursuit of technical excellence overshadows the need for emotional connection. Similarly, while innovative in its rhythmic patterns, “There’s Beauty In Fear” could benefit from a touch more space, a little more room to breathe, and a lot more melodic development of motifs and themes in the solos.
The final track, “Body and Soul,” serves as a short serene moment with its relaxed, respectful post-bop rendition of this timeless jazz standard. The power of space and jazz blues takes center stage here as Baker and bassist Godoy deliver soulful, musical solos.
Be Still is undoubtedly, a documentation of Baker’s undeniable talent and technical skill. However, in the future, it would be interesting to see him venture into more diverse sonic landscapes, balancing technical precision with a more nuanced emotional approach. This would make for a more ‘mature’ melodic journey and provide the breathing room that makes the listening experience more engaging and less relentless. All in all, the potential for musical greatness is palpable, and it’s a pleasure to witness Baker’s journey unfold.