YOUNG, GIFTED, black and British -- Courtney Pine has been heralded as England's answer to Wynton Marsalis, though the tenor sax, not the trumpet, is his instrument of choice. Performing at Fort Dupont Park Friday and Saturday, Pine has garnered a lot of favorable press on this side of the pond, but he's by no means the only British import worth keeping tabs on.
Courtney Pine "A Vision's Tale" (Island). Along with producer Delfeayo Marsalis, Pine recruited a first-rate American rhythm section composed of pianist (and jazz patriarch) Ellis Marsalis, bassist Delbert Felix and drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, then selected tunes that span a broad range of moods and traditions, concentrating on standards. The ballads in particular -- beginning with "In a Mellowtone" and "There Is No Greater Love" and continuing through a relaxed piano and soprano sax duet of "Skylark" -- are richly enhanced by Marsalis's flowing lyricism and sparkling, harmonically rich improvisations.
At 25, Pine has yet to develop a comparable finesse, though he's quickly learning. His forte is still uptempo tunes. Fortunately, he and Watts get plenty of opportunities to shine in that context here, whether saluting Sonny Rollins on a rhythmically infectious "I'm an Old Cowhand," John Coltrane on the harmonic steeplechase "Giant Steps" or returning to Ellingtonia for inspiration on the surging "C Jam Blues."
Steve Williamson "A Waltz for Grace" (Verve). Like Pine, London-born Williamson is another 25-year-old saxophonist who came up playing funk, reggae and rock, but he's far more apt to show those influences. As a result, "A Waltz for Grace" sometimes sounds a bit too eclectic for its own good, resembling a diverse sampler of contemporary grooves more than a cohesive, thought-out record. Still, there's no mistaking Williamson's triple-threat talent -- on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones -- or his familiarity with and deep affection for John Coltrane and other jazz masters. Another plus is singer Abbey Lincoln, who drops by for a cameo on the poignant title track.
Cleveland Watkiss "Green Chimneys" (Verve). Although comparisons with Bobby McFerrin are probably inevitable, as a singer Watkiss isn't given to unbridled flights of fancy. Rather, on several cuts here -- including pieces that feature the innocent and sometimes inspirational lyrics that he wrote for Thelonious Monk's "Green Chimmneys" and Wayne Shorter's "Seeds of Sin" -- Watkiss sounds more attuned to the jazz stylings of veterans Mark Murphy, Betty Carter and Leon Thomas. While Pine, Williamson and several other talented British musicians make the arrangements (and Watkiss) swing effortlessly at times, It's a medley of pop standards that best captures the inherent charm and warmth of Watkiss's voice.
The Jazz Renegades "Freedom Samba" (Verve). The renegades in question are saxophonist-flutist Alan Barnes and drummer Steve White, who are joined here by a sizable contingent of British musicians well-versed in everything from hard bop to lilting South American melodies. More often than not, though, Barnes and White set the mood, and the harder they swing the better. Except for vocalist Sarah Jane Morris's deliciously cool rendering of Rodgers and Hart's "Do It the Hard Way," the best tracks always revolve around the feisty interplay of sax and drums, especially on the harmonic rollercoaster "Up in Jim's Flat" and Sonny Rollins's irresistibly festive "Mambo Bounce."
The James Taylor Quartet "Get Organized" (Polydor). What Joey DeFrancesco has been trying to do here -- namely, revive the sound and popularity of the Hammond organ -- Taylor has already achieved in England. However, Taylor has taken a far less challenging path than the jazz route DeFrancesco has chosen. "Get Organized" is filled with agreeable but mostly lightweight funk and shuffle tracks, punctuated by the occasional jazz cut. And not even a brief appearance by Watkiss can make the jazz sound all that exciting.