Alto saxophonist Sherman Irby, a fluent improviser and ardent carrier of the jazz-tradition torch, toasts his bandmates, favorite saxophonists and other influences with the first recording to feature his regular working group, Momentum. The quintet, with trombonist and fellow JLCO member Vincent Gardner, pianist Eric Reed, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III, makes an impressive debut with Cerulean Canvas.
Irby’s bright but warm sound is in full flight on “John Bishop Blues,” which he opens with an extended solo introduction before being joined by Cannon’s walking bass, then the rest of the rhythm section and, later, his JLCO boss Wynton Marsalis on trumpet; the tune’s title references the founder of Dreamland, a widely beloved barbecue joint in the saxophonist’s hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala. Marsalis also stops by on “SYBAD,” a bouncy swinger saluting the late JLCO baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley.
Elsewhere it’s mostly a sax-trombone frontline, starting with “Racine,” a bluesy piece dedicated to Cannon—featured at the tune’s beginning and end—and boasting a melody hinting at Ornette Coleman. “Blues for Poppa Reed,” honoring the group’s pianist, is a soul-jazz number initiated with a kind of call and response between Reed and his bandmates. “From Day to Day,” a pretty ballad penned by the late Mulgrew Miller, is the first of three consecutive tunes with JLCO trombonist Elliot Mason replacing Gardner; he also joins the frontline on “Willie’s Beat, aka The Sweet Science,” written for and showcasing Jones, and Wayne Shorter’s aptly titled “Contemplation.”
The group remakes Stevie Wonder’s “Smile Please” as a straight-up jazz tune, featuring one of Reed’s most ambitious solos on the disc; salutes famed African-American painter Sam Gilliam, on Gardner’s sprawling, multicolored “Blue Twirl”; and leverages the alto-and-trombone tonality and interplay to great effect on “Sweet Georgia Brown.”