In all my years producing CDs and records, this project ranks in the top ten rewarding and creative experiences of my career, just pure joy. – John Lee
“This music is movin’ and groovin’ with historic elegance and euphoric relevance. I am proud to say these are the young ‘Giants I Walk With’.” – Jimmy Heath
Another jazz geography lesson: What city has incubated such talents as Billy Eckstein, Gary Bartz, Antonio Hart, and the Harper Brothers? Why, Baltimore, naturally, and not-so-coincidentally alto and soprano saxophonist Mark Gross bedsides. After leaving his mark (no pun intended…really) on over 80 jazz recordings, Gross passes another milestone, his third, most ambitious, and perhaps best album thus far, Blackside. www.jlpstore.com
Born 1966, Mark Gross was literally baptized in music—the sanctified sounds of gospel reverberated through the Gross household. His father was the Pastor of his hometown church Mt. Zion C.O.G.I.C. up until his passing February 1, 2007. While his father gave the young Mark a grounding in the classic tenor tradition—Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins—brother-trumpeter Vincent helped him to the post bop sounds of Lee Morgan and brother Norwood Jr. to the sleek, vibrant funk of the Brothers Johnson, Curtis Mayfield, and Kool & the Gang. After developing his interests in classical music at the Baltimore School for the Arts, Mark studied four years at Berklee College of Music and got his Bachelor of Arts Degree in Music Performance.
Upon his 1988 graduation, Gross cut an impressive swath within the jazz world: Buster Williams ‘Something More’ Quartet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Charles Mingus Big Band, Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, and the Dave Holland Big Band. Further cementing his flexibility and fluency, Gross has performed on Broadway (Five Guys Named Moe, based on the music of Louis Jordan; Kat and the Kings, Swing ), with calypso icon Mighty Sparrow, with retro-swing king George Gee & His Make-Believe Ballroom Orchestra, and with R&B singers Marlon Saunders and Kenny Lattimore.
What’s most startling about Blackside—aside from the obvious ace musicianship—is the fresh variety it carries. While some jazz albums give up their secrets, stylistically speaking, with the first tune or two, Blackside is full of enticing surprises, reflecting the rich breadth of Gross’ musical experience. The credit for that is shared by Gross and producer John Lee. “We sat down together, finding tunes that hadn’t been over-recorded…we wanted to make the album fresh to listen to.” And as luck would have it, it was by sheer coincidence Blackside has three tunes by Randy & Michael Brecker.
The knotty, funky opener “On the Backside” is a richly orchestrated strut through a downtown thoroughfare, Gross’ alto wailing with the confident joy of a youth that just got all A’s on his final report card before summer vacation. Resplendent with tasty and measured writing for a brass section (and the extra texture of Rosena Hill’s wordless singing), the vivid detail of this track evokes the jazz-laden, swaggering soundtracks of Benny Golson and Dave Grusin. The yearning “Choro Bandido” features Gross’ poetic, hauntingly soulful soprano sax and Freddie Hendrix’s tender flugelhorn, at brief moments intertwining divinely. “Volare”—yes, that “Volare,” the theme song of a dozen Italian-American crooners, is given (via an arrangement by Oscar Peterson) a beautifully bluesy hue. Gross gives the melody an unabashedly romantic swing ‘round the dance floor, with a rich tone that recalls the Italian tenors of yesteryear—namely, those of Charlie Ventura and Flip Phillips (born Filippelli) and the more recently vintaged Joe Lovano. “Bangalore,” composed by the great trumpeter Randy Brecker, is a simmering, plaintively crackling mid-tempo swinger evoking the blues-charged hard bop of the mid-1950s sessions of Cannonball Adderley and Horace Silver. Yet Gross and company aren’t coasting on anyone’s past glories—while stylistically similar to the days of yore, the fire of the soloists—Gross, Hendrix, and pianist Cyrus Chestnut—is purely contemporary and all their own. (Note the volatile but contained crackle of Greg Hutchinson’s drums.)
The irrepressible groove of “Cherry Picker” practically cries out for radio play, reminding us there was a time when jazz pieces could be hit singles (such as Eddie Harris’ “Listen Here” and Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder”). It’s got an insistent but not overbearing groove and pointed solos, Gross making with some especially gruff, genially agitated tones (a la Cannonball) and Hendrix bristling like a son-of-a-Morgan. Another Brecker tune, this time by the late Michael, the invigorating “Straphangin,’” maintains the groove quotient, adding a bit of Chesnut’s organ as soul sauce. The tantalizingly brief “Meadows/Knocks Me Off My Feet” spotlights Gross’ tip-o’-the-fedora to classic ballad tradition.
Says Gross of his overall approach, “I try to play with a sense of purpose, with the principles I grew up with. While I want to attract a [wide] audience [with the new album], I don’t feel like I changed anything in the way I’ve played…I’m not playing ‘down’ to anyone.” Blackside is that rare bird of jazz platters that is both uncompromising yet devoid of any elitism, a thoughtful and engrossing [possible pun intended] good time waiting to be had, again and again..
1. On The Backside
3. Choro Bandido
6. Sabe Voce
7. Cherry Picker
8. Name Game
11. Knocks Me Off My Feet
Mark Gross alto & soprano saxophones
Freddie Hendrix trumpet & flugelhorn
Cyrus Chestnut piano
Dezron Douglas bass
Greg Hutchinson drums
Vanderlei Pereira percussion