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Max Bessesen: Trouble (Ropeadope)

A review of the alto saxophonist's debut album

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Max Bessesen: Trouble
The cover of Trouble by Max Bessesen

Often restless, hyperintense and urgent, sometimes relaxed, always probing: The music on Max Bessesen’s debut album is nothing if not evocative. He offers sonic portraits of a time period, our disturbing present, as evidenced by both the album’s name and accompanying lyrics—printed but not sung—that are referenced in the track titles.

Bessesen also delivers evocations of place. “Bakkam,” with its funk-ish backbeat, nervy, twisty alto, and jagged textures, was inspired by a neighborhood in the city of Chennai, India, one of three countries (along with Ghana and Cuba) where the Chicago-based alto saxophonist traveled and studied during a year-long 2016 trip.

The title track, at the same sprawling 7:20 length as “Bakkam,” has cornetist Ron Miles, from the leader’s native Denver, on muted cornet, sending long tones over a bed of free-floating rhythms supplied by Bessesen’s regular bandmates: pianist Eric Krouse, bassist Ethan Philion, and drummer Nathan Friedman. On the way to “Trouble” are “Mayhem,” all electro-jazz grooves and repeating harmony horn lines giving way to sprawling solos, and “Trials,” a haunting short unaccompanied piece that has the leader’s alto weaving and doubling back on itself.

There are other pairings of brief pieces with longer compositions. Nervy, effects-strafed opener “Whirling” is followed by postbop standout “Blue Glass Halo,” and drum showcase “Nungam” leads into “Bakkam.” All that and a romantic standard too, as the quintet closes with an unhurried reading of “Be My Love,” which opens with Philion’s resonant intro and benefits from tension-and-release rhythmic interplay and sax-and-trumpet harmonies and counterlines. Call it good trouble, more of which we could all use.


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Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a longtime arts journalist and bass player based in Florida. Formerly the pop music critic for the Tampa Tribune, he has contributed to many national publications, recently including the Washington PostJazziz, and Relix. His byline also has appeared in DownBeat, Bass Player, Billboard, Variety, Spin, Rolling Stone, and several academic journals. Sharkskin, the second album from his long-running band, Acme Jazz Garage, has aired on radio stations across the U.S.