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Sherman Irby – Cerulean Canvas – Available October 20

Integrity is a word that often tends to be thrown around too loosely these days. But in the case of the extraordinary alto saxophonist Sherman Irby it not only fully applies, but demands a capital “I” for the proper emphasis. His latest album Cerulean Canvas on Black Warrior Records with his ensemble Sherman Irby & Momentum confirms that fact over and over again throughout its 10 outstanding tracks.

The entire history of jazz as expressed through the alto is always fully contained in every note that Irby plays–the rich lyricism of Hodges, the commanding facility of Parker, the whimsy of Ornette, the exuberant swing of Cannonball, the exploratory confrontation of Gary Bartz and Sonny Fortune–and in those appropriate moments, the down home bluesy funkiness of Hank Crawford and Maceo Parker. Irby is a protector of the profound legacy, not in the museum curator sense, but in the classic tradition of the living vitality of calling upon the past in forging his own unique voice to define the present and foretell the future.

In the old-school tradition that he’s fully embraced, Irby uses his virtuosity to tell compelling stories, not just to show it off. Considering the title of the album, it’s even more appropriate to say that he’s a painter of images, deftly splashing his palette of colors upon the canvases provided by the delightful compositions – and in the company of like-minded artists who join him enthusiastically in the joy of creation.

For Cerulean Canvas, his eighth album as a leader and fifth for Black Warrior, Momentum is comprised of a stellar cast of collaborators, including trombonist Vincent Gardner, pianist Eric Reed, Gerald Cannon on bass, and Willie Jones III on drums. Two special guests are also on hand. Trombonist Elliot Mason spells Gardner on three tracks; and Wynton Marsalis steps out of the limelight of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to grace the JLCO lead altoist’s album with his eminent presence, offering his unique talents to the appropriate enhancement in the manifestation of Irby’s music. This exemplary array of musicians fully and impeccably immerse themselves in Irby’s music, bringing all of their collective heart and soul to the proceedings as if they owned it, but always keeping focused on the leader’s intent and ownership of the art their synergy is creating.

The repertoire is captivating and expressive, providing brilliant canvases for the musical portraits: deeply grooved blues, poignant ballads, a blistering romp, a refreshing take on an old standard, a Stevie Wonder tune and an intricately crafted exploratory soundscape. Irby composed five of the pieces and shares the solo spotlight generously, but his alto is the primary color that unifies the tracks individually and the overall context that binds them together. Emotive and evocative on Mulgrew Miller’s lovely “From Day to Day,” and with filigreed warmth and wisdom on Wayne Shorter’s gorgeous “Contemplation,” Irby’s ballad artistry is steeped in traditional lyricism and is yet as urgent as this moment.

The Cannonball influence is front and center on Irby’s edgy and deeply grooved “Racine;” and his urgent adventurousness highlights Gardner’s episodic Mingus-tinted dedication to a remarkable African-American painter, “Blue Twirl: Portrait of Sam Gilliam” as Irby nimbly dances through the intricacy. Straightforward blues expression is on tap on two more Irby originals with an old-school statement that defers to Eric Reed’s featured wizardry on the call-and-response “Blues for Poppa Reed;” and bestowed in undiluted form on “John Bishop Blues” an organically flowing homage to a barbecue master (and all that might succulently represent) in Irby’s hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Marsalis and the band add their own weight to Irby’s brilliant raw blues essence in what usually happens only in the late night atmosphere, just for the musicians themselves and anyone else so spectacularly lucky to be there at the time.

Marsalis also joins in for “SYBAD,” Irby’s tribute to JLCO charter member Joe Temperley who passed away in 2016. Not a tearful remembrance, but more appropriately an easy swinging bluesy celebration of the man, with Marsalis and Irby fully immersed in the fond memory. Two contrasting angles of Irby’s alto majesty round out this wonderful album. Playful whimsy is the key in the effervescent take on the old standard “Sweet Georgia Brown” with Irby and Gardner doing a deft dance around Jones’ sticks-on-rims percussive mastery; and all out scorching vibrancy alongside Mason’s equally explosive trombone provide the one-two punch on Irby’s blistering “Willie’s Beat, aka The Sweet Science.”

Since his arrival on the New York scene in 1994 where he was a regular on the vital Smalls scene for three years, Irby has steadily developed his career as a mainstay alto saxophonist through his recording and touring. Two albums for Blue Note led to his longstanding commitment to self-empowerment and artistic freedom and he has continued that since with his own Black Warrior Records. His artistic imperative forged by his participation in the unparalleled Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead Program, Irby has been a featured member of groups led by Marcus Roberts, Roy Hargrove, Elvin Jones, Papo Vazquez, and currently tours with the immortal McCoy Tyner. A member of the JLCO from 1995-97, Sherman rejoined the orchestra in 2005 and serves as both first alto saxophonist and a key arranger. In addition to all of his performing activities, Sherman has developed an excellent reputation as a composer, receiving commissions for works that include Twilight Sounds, and his Dante-inspired ballet, Inferno. Also heavily focused upon youth education Sherman was the regional director for eight years for JazzMasters Workshop, a mentoring program for young children. He has also served as Artist-in-Residence for Jazz Camp West, and as an instructor for the Monterey Jazz Festival Band Camp.

As incredibly busy as he is, this brilliant new album will hopefully inspire Sherman Irby to focus even more upon his own music as a leader.