CD Review:  Joel Frahm

Live at Mezzrow

REVIEWED BY:  Andrew Janak


Recognized as as saxophonist and composer, some of Andrew’s compositions have been performed/recorded by groups around the United States including the UNL Jazz Orchestra with Victor Lewis, DePaul Jazz Ensemble with Randy Brecker, Bob Lark's Alumni Big Band and the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra. 

CD:  Joel Frahm:  Live at Mezzrow

Label: SmallLIVE



Live at Mezzrow

by Andrew Janak

Tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm has established himself as an improviser of formidable technique and rhythmic ingenuity, capable of burning at the fastest of tempos while still maintaining a sense of motivic development. Frahm’s latest release Live at Mezzrow showcases the saxophonist at the peak of his powers and surrounded by longtime friends and musical collaborators Spike Wilner (piano) and Neal Miner (bass). The drum-less trio tackles a loose set of Great American Songbook standards bookended by a pair of blues tunes written by Frahm and Wilner.


The musical (and personal) chemistry amongst the musicians is evident from the opening track “Welcome Blues”, as Wilner’s busy, percussive comping serves as improvised counterpoint to Frahm’s extended improvisation with Miner holding the texture together with a steady walking bass. Frahm ends the track with a dizzying unaccompanied cadenza full of blues clichés sequenced and transformed through multiple keys. Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” begins with Frahm playing the melody alone at breakneck speed before being joined by Wilner, with the duo going slightly in and out of phase. Frahm’s solo shows his mastery of bebop vocabulary along with modern intervallic language, keeping an organic balance between the two approaches.

The beginning of Richard Rogers’ “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” further evidences the informal nature of the recording, as you can hear Frahm ask the group “Do you want to do that one? Do you (Wilner) want to set it up?” Wilner then starts the tune with a lightly swinging solo piano introduction and takes the first solo – a spirited, contrapuntal improvisation. Frahm’s solo begins mysteriously with a series of lines making use of false fingerings and overtones before ripping into more standard harmonic language. Frahm references the opening overtones throughout the rest of his improvisation, confounding the expectation of the listener.    


Live at Mezzrow does not necessarily break any new musical ground or try to reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t have to. Instead it features three like-minded jazz musicians interpreting standard tunes at the highest level. In the liner notes Frahm says “I am immediately struck by the deep sympathetic communication and understanding among us on this recording,” and the sense of joy in the music from Frahm and company is obvious from beginning to end.