By Jeff Cebulski
The saxophonist Shawn Maxwell has earned a favorable reputation in the Chicago area as an excellent, inquisitive jazz artist and educator; this reviewer, upon perusing his now vast discography, likes to think of him as an adventurer. Reviews marvel at Maxwell’s willingness to invent various ensembles to surround his sumptuous alto playing, never settling into a consistent albeit comfortable motif. Yet the music he creates continually satisfies the appetite of jazz fans wanting something creative rather than conventional.
Maxwell’s latest case in point, Story at Eleven, will get an album release concert on April 14 at The Venue in Aurora, with the Plainfield North High School Jazz Band providing the opening set.
Compared to many of his previous 10 albums dating back to 2005, this effort is practically austere, both in players and in length. A concept album, Story at Eleven features Maxwell with electric keyboardist Collin Clausen, electric bassist Michael Barton, and drummer Greg Essig performing four compositions in the form of a suite lasting around 40 minutes. While its theme is not readily apparent, the album suggests something more contemplative-during-pandemic, not a particularly unusual occurrence these days. What the austerity fashions is a near-seamless flow of music from a band that sounds like it jelled during the process.
The song titles do suggest a personal narrative of sorts. “Appointment with…” begins with a solitary, pensive ostinato from Clausen before Maxwell and Barton join in, stating something serious and perhaps foreboding, building to a tense moment, then returning to Clausen’s solo communication, gradually punctuated by Barton and Essig. The relatively effortless exchange exhibited here points to the musicians’ affinity for Maxwell’s material. As for the saxophonist, his alto playing turns downright Breckeresque during a smoking, dramatic solo.
Next is “Internal Rift,” introduced by Essig’s sensitive mallet work and Barton’s quiet support. Clausen follows with a hovering B-3 comp while Maxwell’s luxurious commentary is juxtaposed, creating something of a, well, rift, that is revealed in a musical altercation between the two, with Essig and Barton providing a sonic background.
“Near Surrender” returns to a more pacific tone, with Maxwell exuding a melodic aftermath to the argument before doing a 180, a resistance to the apparent resignation that led the cut. Maxwell again blows intently, as if fighting off an inclination to, well, surrender. Essig’s drum solo serves as a time-out, before Clausen and Maxwell return with a nod to that resignation, leading to…“Answer & Arrival,” a brighter-toned proclamation of enlightenment, given Maxwell’s uplifting delivery and Clausen’s higher octave Rhodes solo.
The Return of the Electric Keyboard is a welcome trend; Chris Potter’s Circuit Trio with James Frances turned some heads over the past two years. Shawn Maxwell, in his incorporation of it on Story at Eleven has chosen well; the unifying effect of music and musician makes this new release a pleasurable, easy listen while at the same time portraying opposing emotions. Maxwell has again given his fans something to listen closely to and think about, stirring art in stirring times.
Shawn Maxwell, Story at Eleven. Cora Street Records, 2023
Shawn Maxwell, alto saxophone
Collin Clausen, keyboards (Rhodes, Wurlitzer, B-3)
Michael Barton, electric bass
Greg Essig, drums