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Joel Frahm Quartet: Live at Smalls

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One of Joel Frahm’s major strengths is his ability to adapt his saxophone playing to a number of seemingly incongruous settings with grace and ease. And while the tenor saxophonist’s chameleonic tendencies on this live set are largely kept in check, there’s enough shifting in tone and approach to make one wonder whether all of the saxophone parts are by the same guy.

They are, of course, and despite the stylistic zigzagging, there’s a consistency to the level of performance quality throughout the program, which teams Frahm with the ever more impressive Kurt Rosenwinkel on guitar, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Otis Brown III (a blatant error on the back of the CD sleeve lists Brown as pianist). The quartet navigates the multiple moods like the pros they are, transforming the music’s potentially off-putting eclecticism into a positive where others would have let it weigh the set down.

Or they do after the first tune, anyway. Launching the set with an 11-plus-minute blues isn’t the best way to connect-perhaps “Short Rack” engaged the audience at Smalls last winter, but on the recording, despite the stellar musicianship, it simply goes on way too long and never gets very far from where it started. Things recover immediately with Frahm’s probing and playful “A Little Extra,” the saxophonist and Rosenwinkel tearing it up as they duel, the rhythm section driving fiercely. By the time the band wraps with a fiery take on Bird’s “Steeplechase,” they’ve not only negotiated all sorts of incongruent terrain but have left the listener as breathless as the clubgoers must have been that night.

Originally Published