Leo Sherman has the qualities many bandleaders look for in a bass player. He’s technically adept; he keeps solid time; he can be depended on for tasteful solos; and he seems disinclined to steal the spotlight. But what makes a good sideman doesn’t necessarily make a good leader, so it’s noteworthy that his debut album, Tonewheel, reveals Sherman also to be a resourceful composer and impressive judge of instrumental ability.
The album-opening “In Flight” gives a fair sense of how those pieces fit. Pianist Ben Winkelman kicks things off with a left-hand leading rhythmic figure, which Sherman and drummer Dan Pugach fortify with a lightly Latin pulse while tenor saxophonist Paul Jones and guitarist Alex Goodman state the melody. So far, so mellow. But then Winkelman goes into a chiming eighth-note figure that suspends both pulse and harmony. There’s a melancholy arco figure on the bass, doubled by guitar, and a sax countermelody; then it’s back to the original groove. Simple, catchy, and effective. But rather than let the ingenuity of the head define the rest of the track, Sherman wisely keeps the initial pulse for the solos, lets his bandmates stretch it until it nearly breaks—then returns to the head.
The range of Sherman’s writing, from the simple, folksy “Spice Planet” to the wistful, boppish “Chagall,” gives the group more than enough to work with. And there is some noteworthy playing here, particularly the strangulated anguish of Jones’ solo on “Aquí Me Quedo,” a tune written by the Chilean dissident Victor Jara, who was tortured and killed by the Pinochet regime. After a slow and steady build to an anguished free-jazz wail, deftly supported by Pugach, Jones lets the saxophone’s sound fade away until all we can hear is the empty clicking of the keys. It’s a devastating moment, one that does credit to Sherman’s strength as a bandleader.
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