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Unfolding-- Natalie Cressman & Secret Garden

This CD should be considered one of the best debut jazz releases of 2012, as it reveals Cressman's admirable talents as a trombonist, vocalist, composer, and arranger. The 20-year-old artist has already compiled a substantial resume, performing with salsa and world music bands, Pete Escovedo's Latin Jazz Orchestra, Peter Apfelbaum and the New York Hieroglyphics, and her mother Sandy Cressmann's Homenagem Brasileira. She has also toured for three years with Phish's Trey Anastasio, and played with Joe Lovano, Miguel Zenon, and Nicholas Payton, among others. Not only is her mother a professional singer and bandleader, but her father Jim is a trombonist who has played for years with Santana (he also co-produced, recorded, and mixed this CD). Cressman's band of young musicians, Secret Garden, features tenor saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown, trumpeter Ivan Rosenberg, pianist Pascal LeBeouf, bassist Ruben Samama, and drummer Jake Goldbas. Rosenberg, Samama, and Goldbas, like Cressman, have all studied at the Manhattan School of Music. Apfelbaum, a mentor of Cressman and a family friend, is heard on one track as well. The music produced, reflecting Cressman's many influences, is distinctive, polished, and durable, for its allure does not wane upon repeated exposure.

The declarative opening hard bop theme, "Flip," blends the horns sinuously with its composer Cressman's round-toned trombone emerging on top for part of it. Her gliding, convoluted solo asserts her chops on the difficult instrument from the start. LeBeouf's heartfelt improv follows, with Cressman's glistening wordless vocalizing wafting alongside him. The reprise is enhanced by her lovely voice as well. Joni Mitchell's influence is quite evident in Cressman's timbre and intervallic jumps in singing the lyrics to her poignant "Whistle Song." Her trombone solo displays a deep and rich tone, and a nimble mind and navigation, in great and intriguing contrast to her light-as-air voice. LeBeouf again impresses, melodic and ever-building in his statement, with Goldbas' skillful and provocative support, as he provides throughout the track. "Honeysuckle Rose" is given a hip hop/R&B rhythmic foundation by Samama and Goldbas, and Cressman sings it with an earnest and knowing drift sans innuendo. LeBeouf contributes an attractively mellow Fender Rhodes solo,and there's an arranged vocal chorus section that showcases Cressman in succulent harmony with none other than herself.

"Echo" is introduced contrapuntally by trombone and Rosenberg's trumpet prior to Cressman's wordless vocal spot and a swirling trumpet foray above a Brazilian beat. Samama's reverberating bass solo is forthrightly lyrical. The reprise is even more satisfying than the opening thanks to the lustrous development that has transpired in between. Cressman's trombone launches her soothing "Skylight" theme before being joined by the other horns at the bridge and beyond. Her initially warmly reflective solo builds in momentum and spark, seconded by the forcefulness of LeBeouf's comping and Goldbas' drumming. Rosenberg's exploration is characterized by his technical acumen and a voluble emotional thrust. Joni Mitchell's version of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" is what first inspired Cressman to sing while in high school. Here a wistful well-arranged prelude leads to Cressman's pliant, sweetly intoned vocal, which is more Cressman than Mitchell in conception. LeBeouf's bluesy solo is succeeded by an orchestrated 6/8 Latin section for the horns. Rosenberg soars full throttle in his impassioned statement, and the leader's return vocal again captures the spirits of both Mitchell and composer Charles Mingus from her own refreshingly original perspective.

For Cressman's "Waking," another fascinating arranged intro finds the horns in velvety call and response. The theme itself is enthralling and memorable with a perfectly compatible bridge, and the front line harmonize it with grace and feeling. Samama's solo retains the melodic essence amid well-crafted variations. Lefkowitz-Brown forms an improvisation that starts out thematically before broadening to include sweeping, undulating extended runs. The uplifting reprise completes one of the CD's strongest selections, an instant classic in its execution. Cressman sings the lyrics to her original "Reaching for Home" with octave leaps, sliding intonation, and unpredictable phrasings, all somewhat remindful of Dominique Eade. Lefkowitz-Brown responds with a diverging brawny, relentlessly probing solo that flows back to Cressman's voice, this time intensifying with the vamping of tenor and trumpet (only briefly heard earlier), and a boisterous Goldbas along for the ride. The yearning, assertive theme of "That Kind" is stirringly negotiated by Cressman, Rosenberg and guest Apfelbaum's tenor. The latter solos first, expanding gradually above Samama's edgy ostinato and LeBeouf and Goldbas' fervent support to a heated peak and a subsequent theme reiteration by all the horns. What is described as a "rocking maracatu groove" continues on to stimulate Cressman's gripping formulation, which ranges from pungent to sliding. A more extended, vigorous recap ensues to wrap up another fully satisfying piece.

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Scott Albin