I’ve been following the career of Houstonian saxophonist Stephen Richard for a number of years now, and there are two things that get more apparent with each new album: he is becoming less of a so-called “smooth jazz” musician and more of a straight jazz musician, a direction opposite of the one taken by many a jazzman who’ve sold out in a play to expand his audience. The other thing is something I’ve mentioned several times before, that Richard carries Grover Washington, Jr.’s torch so well, which to some seems to contradict the first observation. But it becomes clearer that he understands Washington better than his legion of wannabe’s, because Washington’s music retained so much more jazz purity than he’s often given credit for, overlooked because it’s also contemporary and it grooves. Much of those same attributes are found in Richard’s own music, even when he doesn’t particularly sound like Grover.
This philosophical discussion of Richard’s approach to jazz popped up in my head while listening to his two latest albums, Perspective and The Gallery Sessions: Suite Movements, both of which came out on May 10.
These albums follow in the Stephen Richard tradition of making and releasing two albums at once, each representing a different approach to making music. A couple of years ago, the pair of releases were the stripped-down Bread ‘N Water, Vol. 2 and a live souvenir An Evening of Happenstance, Live In New Orleans. These are records where I think Richard has crystallized his own nook within jazz, one that is soulful, smooth, and easily listenable but doesn’t at all dilute the integrity of jazz. A gateway to straight jazz? No, because if you embrace this music, you’ve already gone through gates and are heading down its fascinating corridors.
The Gallery Sessions: Suite Movements was made in a way simply unheard of within the realm of contemporary soul-jazz: Richard brought not even fully conceived tunes into the studio but only sketches and the band fleshed ‘em out on the spot in the studio. Within this context, they manage to avoid excessive noodling and these songs always seem to be going somewhere. Somewhat similar in concept to those Bread ‘n’ Water albums, but The Gallery Sessions involves a full combo of five to seven musicians.
“Room A” starts with an electric bass groove supplied by Eric Elder, and in spite the song’s nine-minute length, the song doesn’t wander and has well-defined chorus and bridge parts. The energy from the live-in-the-studio vibe is felt the most from Jerre Jackson’s thunderous drums. The next two songs are jams, each divided into three-part suites. “The Blue Door” is an easy, head-nodding jam and Richard shows off his ability to modulate solos that work its way effortlessly to its crescendo at the perfect spot (and even tossing in a quote from “Softy, As In a Morning Sunrise” to make sure you’re paying attention). “Movement III” of the same jam is where Ronnie Mason, Jr. cuts loose on piano and Richard returns with an entirely new set of ideas.
The other album is titled Perspective to mean Richard’s interpretation, viewpoint, and style imposed on these songs…his perspective. Among five Richard originals are four covers pulling equally from the worlds of soul and jazz. But regardless of whether Richard is playing his own songs or someone else’s, it all sounds entirely of his own, and that’s why the album title sticks. More interestingly, Perspective feels no less organic than The Gallery Sessions, because there’s nothing held back on the passion and it feels lean ‘n’ live.
Even on Perspective, where you would think he’s making concessions compared to Gallery, Richard is not afraid to let the performances go on to concert length in order to get out everything he wants to express in a song. Aretha Franklin’s pretty, jazzy but overlooked “Day Dreaming” runs over nine minutes. A bouncy acoustic bass figure gets things going off on the good foot, and an engaging fully chorded aside by pianist Mason keeps that good thing going. An extended bridge apparently devised by Richard quickly settles into a nice progression and builds momentum until he unleashes on his tenor sax.
“Anytime” was composed by Richard but this ten minute performance clearly belongs on the same album as “Day Dreaming.” It’s another taut, in-the-pocket acoustic bass figure that sends this song grooving along nicely. So urban and modern, and yet nothing is plugged in and once again Richard soars at solo time.
Other notable moments include Carolyn Blanchard’s delightfully impish and husky vocal on Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing Until You Hear From Me,” Irving Berlin’s “Simply Beautiful” played with acoustic guitar and a churchy organ for a cozy, downshifting change-up and the salsa-styled “Baila Conmigo,” where Richard’s alto is perfectly compatible with this Afro-Cuban groove.
That’s a lot of music stretched out over two discs and some of these tracks are long. Richard simply had too much meaningful to say to cut corners, and his muse didn’t allow him to hold back and compromise.
And that’s why he made the right call in releasing them both, and releasing them now.