“It’s taken a long time to get this together.” Having recently turned 40, Alex Garnett has just recorded his debut album “Serpent” (Whirlwind Recordings) He played the tunes from the album to a small but very appreciative audience at the 606 last Thursday, the night before the Easter holidays.
Garnett seemed to want to apologise for his hesitancy. Why? He has had a career as a trusted and in-demand sideman for most of the past two decades. He has that rare ability to be completely at home on alto and tenor. He always has a story to tell when he plays. If he has not rushed into the role of leader, not been in a hurry to get a CD with his name on it into a marketplace which is small and hesitant, even at the best of times, it is something understandable, maybe evan to be praised.
The story of the production of the album is that Garnett went to New York with Michael Janisch, and that they recorded the new album in Brooklyn at Systems Two Studios. Appearing with Garnett and Janisch on the album are pianist Anthony Wonsey and drummer Willie Jones III.
Garnett talked about the mad energy of New York, and one larger than life character -a Latino Brooklyn carwash proprietor - who had unwittingly given his inspiration to a title for a tune: The Pimp.
The equivalents of Wonsey and Jones on the UK tour (*) have been Ross Stanley on piano and Enzo Zirilli on drums. The tightness, balance and expressiveness which this band could achieve at the unforgiving tempi of the faster numbers stays in the mind. While Zirilli resorted to using sheet music for a few of the numbers, Garnett, Janisch and Stanley played the whole gig from memory, and the interaction was constant, energetic and inspiring.
The tunes on the album are all originals but draw on a wide range of inspiration - and he leavened the mix with a couple of standards. Garnett mentioned the influence of a particular line of tenor players – Hank Mobley and Dexter Gordon – as well as Joe Henderson, for whom "the serpent" was a nickname. (The title also refers to the ophecleide or serpent, which Adolphe Sax was experimenting with when the saxophone emerged as one of the by-products.)
The interplay of Garnett and Janisch, particularly on the tune "Three or a Moor" which Garnett dedicated : " to my father's record collection," caught the ear. Garnett's style carries more than just a memory of that unique tenor player Hank Mobley, whose career was cut lamentably short by lung problems. One of his traits as a player - and Garnett is in the same mould - is often to use the first beat as a springboard, to hang behind it, to respond to it. Janish was laying down a strong first beat to the three-four bar, and just leaving the space, staying completely clear of the second beat so that Garnett could weave beautifully turned and infinitely varied responses to it. A further reminder of Mobleyishness came on a standard which Mobley himself recorded: "I Should Care."
This music is a personal statement which comes from very deep inside a fine musician. What you see is what you get, rather than concessions to fashion or edginesss. I thought of Paul Desmond's quip: "I was unfashionable before anyone knew who I was." These musicians don't chase fashion. They are what they are, and do what they do as well as anyone.
It has been worth the wait.
The new CD won’t be officially released until September. For the moment it is available from Michael Janisch’ Whirlwind Recordings website
(*)The Alex Garnett Quartet's eleven-date UK tour was made possible by the Jazz Services touring scheme.
More details of the album are on Ian Mann's Jazzmann site