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Chris Kelsey Trio: Wishing You Were Here

After a self-imposed two-year break, soprano saxophonist and JazzTimes contributor Chris Kelsey stormed back in 2004 with the stellar Renewal, leading a quartet with trombonist and longtime cohort Steve Swell. Wishing You Were Here features the same group minus Swell, with the fluid Francois Grillot on bass and the nimble Jay Rosen on drums, and the results are just as compelling. Kelsey’s restless playing recalls the angled hooks of Ornette Coleman and the birdsong of Eric Dolphy, but his flowing energy is unquestionably unique.

Kelsey also writes subtle, sneaky melodies that firmly ground his soprano excursions yet never restrict them. On “Truculent,” he winds through a hesitant hook before sparring with the clanging Rosen. Later, “Spright” sends a chirpy sax line over a rollercoaster of moods and speeds as Kelsey’s breathless rush coats the foundation of his accompanists like syrup smothering pancakes. Rosen’s accents and Grillot’s vibrations are unerring throughout, but Kelsey’s soprano sax is the clear star.

That instrument shines alone on Beyond Is and Is Not, a set of seven solo covers (plus one original) that explore the bebop influences behind Kelsey’s melodic free jazz. Each inventive interpretation digs deep into the original song, discovering new twists and tones inside the borrowed melodies. On Dexter Gordon’s “Fried Bananas,” Kelsey buzzes around the tune like a hummingbird diving for nectar, while on Wayne Shorter’s “Footsteps,” his pauses and accelerations forge consistent momentum. But the highlight is Kelsey’s own “Memoir,” a web of pulse-quickening runs, sharp ascents and fluid passages of reflection.

Originally Published