This meeting of players and pens fronted by trombonist John Yao, trumpeter Jimmy Smith, and saxophonist James Hughes is more than a simple sextet date. It’s an extension of the enduring Detroit-New York jazz connection.
Smith and Hughes both hail from the Motor City area, where they co-lead a quintet that’s produced a number of strong dates. Yao belongs to the Big Apple, working with and leading bands both large and small there. The partnership between the three—strengthened here by the sturdily swinging rhythm section of pianist Corey Kendrick, bassist Jeff Pedraz, and drummer Nick Collins—is a thing of beauty.
With Smith’s hard bop-esque “I-75 @ 5,” Yao’s shuffling “Hell Gate,” and Hughes’ low-gear “Subterranean Miner” constituting the first third of the album, it’s made clear early on that individualism and balance are both of prime importance. Each man’s compositional style stands apart, yet everything proves complementary. And mutual respect is apparent in every action and reaction across this unit, be it subtle or strong-willed in nature. Everybody comes out a winner because of it.
The Gates should appeal to myriad tastes, as the feisty bossa title track, waltzing “Ice on Snow,” balladic “Sophia’s Song,” and colorfully cool “At Peace” prove. In the end, it’s hard to pick a standout or two, but that’s not for a lack of quality; nothing rises above chiefly because nothing sinks below. A tale of two cities, three leaders, and six musicians turns out to be a well-wrought affair.
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