…Ken Stubbs appears to have mastered with two more fine releases.

Ken Stubbs – Southern Soul

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Ken Stubbs (alto saxophone); Luis Perdomo (piano); Brett Hirst (double bass); Simon Barker (drums)

Recorded 2022

Ken Stubbs – a Day a Way

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Ken Stubbs (alto saxophone); Craig Taborn (piano); Brett Hirst (double bass); Simon Barker (drums)

Recorded 2022

Over the last four years and since the release of Big Hush, alto saxophonist has put behind him a seeming reluctance to record and releases his music in a flurry of activity that has produced seven excellent releases.

These latest two albums continue where the download only release, 3 Shadows, 4 Angels, left off with Stubbs pitting himself against different pianists. Retaining the services of bassist Brett Hirst and drummer Simon Barker ensures that the saxophonist is always sure of this rhythmic support, but the emphasis of the music is dramatically changed with the introduction of a new voice at the piano.

From the relatively safe haven of his longstanding musical relationship with Jason Rebello, Stubbs brought in Ivo Neame for 3 Shadows, 4 Angels, and followed this with two left of field choices in Luis Perdomo and Craig Taborn and the results are quite fascinating.

Having honed his alto sound and approach to improvisation over an extended period of time, Stubbs constantly looks to push himself further and this concept of ringing the changes with different pianists is bringing his alto tone into a new sound world, and one that brings with it a freshness that is ultimately rewarding.

The earlier of the two albums, or the one that was released first at least, is a Day a Way featuring Craig Taborn. Not a logical partner for the altoist perhaps, and that maybe why Stubbs was so keen to work with the US based pianist.

Taborn is equally comfortable paying inside as he is out, and it this slightly schizophrenic approach with the pianist delivering some hugely exciting solos with his forays into freer areas that throw the alto into stark contrast. The pianist certainly seems willing to rock the boat on ‘3 Pablos (One)’ and his playing on ‘Journeyers’ pushes the music and the saxophonist in a new direction.

Some will remember the above composition under its original title ‘The Journeyers To The East’ as recorded with the band First House on the Eréndira album for ECM. This revisiting of compositions from yesteryear serves the saxophonist well, and along with the title track Stubbs also recasts a couple of Django Bates tunes with ‘Underfelt’ and ‘Dimple’. It is quite a treat to hear how Taborn tackles such material, but none are quite so fine as the reworking of Stubbs’s own composition ‘Strange Attractors’ from his album of the same name. The quirky and playful theme elicits some fine playing from Stubbs and superb accompaniment from Taborn as the piece moves from predetermined progressions to brief gently swinging passages. From one of these, Taborn launches into his own solo with a lyrical bent that is a real pleasure.

The second of the two albums, Southern Soul is quite a contrasting prospect with Luis Perdomo at the piano. Venezuelan born Perdomo is cut from a different cloth and stays within the jazz mainstream if with a very contemporary take. Drawing his influences from Bud Powell and Ahmad Jamal he plays with a sure touch and melodic sense that finds Stubbs exploring his straight ahead jazz chops. Indeed, we are even treated to Duke Ellington’s ‘The Feeling of Jazz’ in which Perdomo’s unaccompanied introduction is a highlight of the album. From the intro the bass and drums gently enter, and the pianist stretches out in another lovely solo that is matched by Stubbs’s own solo that follows.

It is interesting to hear how Perdomo and Stubbs’s get stuck into the gently undulating ‘3 Pablos (Two)’ by the saxophonist, and there are also another couple of tunes that are reinvented in Django Bates’s ‘Jay-Tee’ (for the pianist John Taylor) and an original by Ken Stubbs in ‘Northern Soul’; also known as ‘Low-Down – Toy Town’. These pieces are all very different to the progressions that the pianist maybe more familiar with, and it is interesting to hear how he deals with these quite unique pieces.

Even more compelling are two duets for piano and alto that show a wonderful empathy between the musicians, and also serves to showcase Stubbs’s beautiful alto sound. ‘Primavera’ is written by the French guitarist, Donald Régnier and is a pure delight with its gently unfurling melody and exploration by Perdomo and Stubbs.

Almost as good is an in-depth exploration of another Django Bates composition, ‘Bracondale’. More pensive than ‘Primavera’, the duo maintains the concentration and focus that made the earlier performance so compelling if not as free ranging. The alto stays within a narrower range in which every note and phrase is made to count, and Perdomo works within the more constrained structure with just the right degree of gravitas.

If as an artist you are entering a prolific period of recording then it is a fine balancing act to ensure that quantity does not outweigh quality, and this is a balancing act that Ken Stubbs appears to have mastered with two more fine releases.

Reviewed by Nick Lea