Mike Drop 5 – a couple from the shed with Barshay

So this is a shot taken by Peter Barshay yesterday in my back yard, after we had done a few live takes in the shed.  Late-afternoon winter light on the Berkeley Hills.  Beautiful picture and I think the music came out pretty well, too.  As always with shed takes, free range organic jazz, no separation, no headphones, just a sax mic, bass DI, a touch of reverb, and no studio processing. Barshay on bass, MZ on tenor.  (I think you know the tunes.) What you hear is what we did. Hope it brings you a smile…


Mike Drop 4 – The New York Times pulls off the Anhedonic Daily Double

Well, this is funny. I am a long-term and regular reader of the New York Times. Hardly flawless, the paper is, nonetheless, excellent and largely well-written journalism.  That said, I have noticed the Times can find the downside in just about any seemingly positive news.  For instance, as an extreme example, a Times Headline might say “Scientists close to a cure for cancer, NIH reports – Millions will now live, but significant concern as to the impact on the health industry and economy.”  This is only slightly exaggerated.  I was reminded of their ability to look on the downside of life, their endless anhedonia and concern trolling, by this headline from today’s paper, reporting on the remarkable first day of Biden’s presidency. They managed to find TWO, count ’em two downsides to Biden’s auspicious start, as the omnipresent “some experts” say he is at once overly optimistic AND not ambitious enough.  What’s next, Times?  “Contrary to most studies, you can be too fat AND too thin at the same time,”  reports the New York Times

Mike Drop 3 – Introducing Morty, with Free Jazz Trumpet and Trombone

Ok. So for those who know me well, you know I like to do certain voices/characters when in the proper mood. One of my faves is Morty, the curmudgeonly old altakaker (you can look it up) who tends to show up at recording sessions and rehearsals (and even the occasional gig) to break the tension that can happen when musicians are really focused and tempers can fray.  Morty has a unique knack for saying just the right thing to lighten the mood, despite himself.

This is the first of what may be many Morty appearances on Mike Drops. I take no responsibility for what he says. If ya got a problem with it, take it up with him.  In this one, Morty has some ideas for how to make Jazz more popular, accompanied by the dulcet sounds of Erik Jekabson and John Gove from the group Happy Hour.  Enjoy!




Mike Drop 2: The Song Is You – On Melody in Jazz

(This essay was written a couple of years prior to the terrible pandemic we currently find ourselves in, but I still think it is relevant to those of us who love and play jazz. I also have faith and hope that we will get past the awful year that was 2020 and be well on our way to a new and hopefully better normal this year, including live jazz performance. Hell, I am a jazz musician, so I HAVE to be an optimist!)


Do you remember when Clinton ran for President in 1992 and his winning slogan was “it’s the economy, stupid”?  His campaign bridged my last year of nearly 15 on the East Coast and the first of my past more than quarter century on the West Coast.  While I was not a particular fan of Bill and his slick Willie centrist triangulation DLC ways, I did crib his slogan, and wrote a version for myself, taped inside my sax case. “It’s the melody, stupid”.   Like so many jazzers then and even more today, I was, for a brief period in the late 1980s, so into the inside baseball of this advanced jazz lick/permutation and that, that I would forget the fundamental principles of playing that appealed to me. A powerful sense of melodic development in solos coupled with a beautiful sound, strong time, deeply steeped in swinging and the blues.  I had been composing seriously for about 12-13 years at the time, and yet, despite having a good natural instinct for melodic soloing, had moved away from that, enthralled by the blinding tenor pyrotechnics of the era.  Around that time, I began making a concerted effort to start playing more melodic and pure melodies, even on the fast tunes, and I continue to do so, with no regrets. 

I have observed that one of the grand jazz traditions honored more in principle than in practice is that of melody, and especially in playing melodically.  

Why do I say more in principle than in practice? Because so many aspiring jazz musicians now go through a jazz education/training system where they are working out licks and scales and patterns and triad pairs in all 12 keys, transcribing and regurgitating solos or parts of solos, and so on and so forth. 

Meanwhile, when we think of what is memorable in the soloists and songs and solos we love, a beautiful sound, swinging time and beautiful melodic sense are what come to mind for most of us as practicing musicians, and for virtually ALL lay listeners. (You know – those folks who come to listen to us play, and DON’T expect to be on the guest list?).  We pay lip service and obeisance to the notion that solos should be melodic and “tell a story”, but so many of our younger players, professional or student, do anything but that, and for the most part, those who teach this beautiful music glance over it or even dismiss the value of learning melody. 

One of the shining examples we all like to point to is Miles Davis’ solo on So What, a masterpiece of economy, blues, development and song.  And when we look at the players who we love who also connect with a larger audience (IE communicate), they all had or have, among other virtues, a deep and profound sense of melody in their solos. To list just a few:  Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane,  Stan Getz, Cannonball Adderly, Bill Evans, Paul Desmond, Freddie Hubbard, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Kenny Wheeler, Kenny Werner, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Kenny Garrett, Brad Mehldau, John Scofield, John Abercrombie, Bill Frisell, etc, etc. (I am sure you can add others to that list.)

Now they were/are also imbued with other virtues of great jazz soloists, to be sure, including incredible time, a striking sound, the feel of the blues, a mastery of jazz harmony, and the clichés that help give eras of jazz their specific dialect, etc…but everyone on this list had in common the ability to put a melodic element into their solos, the idea of an arc, of a story, of space, of the “singing” notes.  Not a one of them was simply a licks player or only a lines player. And ALL of them knew many great American songbook songs by heart, melody and harmony and even, in the case of folks like Lester and Dexter, the lyrics.  So whether they were prolific composers like Kenny Wheeler or Wayne Shorter, wrote very little, like Lester Young, or somewhere in between, they all had absorbed a full understanding of what made a great melody. That shone through in their playing, in how they constructed a solo, and made their playing so much more memorable and compelling than the latest triad/pair, lick-spewing, 8th note-depositing internet sensations we get subjected to/infatuated with nowadays.  I know that sounds harsh, but the truth is, there is so little in the way of melodic structure and memorable content in a lot of solos today, and I think ONE major reason is the lack of understanding of melody and its crucial role in creating beautiful and memorable solos.  In fact, I am stunned at how few melodies many younger players have memorized now.  

I think I have a pretty good perspective to speak on this, as I am someone with a foot planted firmly both in the jazz player/composer camp and the jazz educator camp. As a player/composer, I have been fortunate enough to gig and record with some of the truly great musicians in this music for more than 40 years now, starting at 18, and have 12 well-received/reviewed CDs and counting to my name as a leader.  As an educator, I have been teaching this music almost as long, starting with running ensembles at Tufts when I was 22, and continuing to doing clinics and masterclasses around North America, as well as running a college jazz program in California and teaching groups and composition/improv theory classes at the California Jazz Conservatory, both for well over 20 years.

In those roles, I have seen the widely-remarked on transformation of jazz.  It has changed a lot. It was music we learned largely on the bandstand, where its practitioners were diverse and mainly working-class and middle class, where one learned through on-the-gig training under the rough “tutelage” of leaders and club owners and audience. Through the mid-1990s most jazz musicians were protean souls who could be counted on to play well and convincingly in every setting from funk to blues to pop to Broadway to, of course, many varieties of jazz, from bebop to fusion to free.  Now the model is one where the elite jazz academy and its “star” teachers have become the new guides for a largely upper-middle-class clientele, where the gigs are far less plentiful, and the ones available are largely door gigs or even “pay-to-play”.  The concerns addressed in the new jazz academy are rarefied and specialized, so that students may become adept at negotiating an Indian Tali form hybridized into a 15/16 broken-up quasi-funk groove, or throw various triad pair permutations over an F Sus vamp. And yet, the idea of grooving convincingly on a swinging blues or standard in 4, not to mention having a thousand (or more)  beautiful melodies and harmonies committed to memory and ingrained in the DNA?  Not relevant or of interest. I am constantly shocked at how many students can spit out 20 memorized Sonny Stitt solos on classic standards, but cannot play the melody or truly sing on the harmony of the tunes these solos come from.  In fact, I am stunned at how many young musicians nowadays blithely dig out their IRealB apps on their phones/ipads to read melodies and changes to tunes that previous generations would have been embarrassed if they had not committed them to memory, even tunes as canonical as Stella or All The Things…

And this is where the problem lies, in my view.  I am no outlier. In my generation, it was commonplace to know at least 1000 tunes, and some of the musicians I knew were legendary, having around 3000-5000 in their brain vault.  In my case, I probably know, with brushing up of a bar here or there, somewhere around 1500, and am still learning new ones and refreshing old ones to this day.  As someone who both improvises and composes, I know it is nearly impossible to create as beautiful and coherent a melody in the moment as with pencil and paper at a piano. But that is a noble and worthy goal, and sometimes we can come close.  There are all kinds of other virtues and challenges to the in the moment creation, including the common language movement and phrasing and interaction, etc. However, having all of these melodies from the great American Songbook, as well as a good representation of the master jazz composers’ melodicism in your veins cannot help but inform and shape what you play for the better and more musical. 

To me, it is not either/or, by the way.  But I think the transcription/lick cart may now have been put before the melody horse for many young players.  Transcription becomes an end in itself. Licks are an easy shortcut to apparent competence.  But, as I have told any student who will listen, much better to learn 1000 melodic standards and perhaps 8-12 transcriptions than vice versa.  (The discussion on transcriptions is a whole other conversation, but I would refer you to David Liebman’s excellent writings and approach to it, where the developing soloist learns 8-10 solos deeply and fully as part of the process of getting one’s own voice.)  

A friend of mine, who is a superb teacher, has a method where he prepares his students marvelously to have fantastic technique, transcribe Charlie Parker and other icons, and dive down to the nuts and bolts of bebop harmony at a granular level.  It is pretty wonderful what he achieves with motivated students.  Many teachers do similar good work in prepping their students to be competent in the bebop/post-bop language.  And yet, as he and I were discussing, it is interesting how many of these students do not find a way to develop their own voice. My belief is that in addition to the excellent prep they get from their teacher,  an aspect we need to guide them to is for them to write music from an early age, always keep an eye on understanding why solos work, not just that they work, and especially to learn these beautiful melodies/harmonies that will help them develop their OWN in-the-moment compositions. It, along with a deep immersion in the blues and swinging, will keep them from sounding antiseptic and like schooled re-creators of what has already been done, since 1000s of melodies marinating inside your neurons as you improvise will give you a sense of song and development that will shape your voice in a way that is uniquely you.  I would much rather hear a player allude to a fragment of a song than spit out a worked-out Brecker or Bird line. It is so achingly obvious when a soloist does that, whereas it is melody and sound and rhythm that connects our solos to our audience.  Playing a worked-out burning lick or triad pair is inside baseball that appeals mainly to fellow jazz musicians/students, and most all of THEM want to be on the guest list. Conversely, playing in the moment with a deep intuitive and organic understanding of 1000s of melodies, along with having done the necessary homework of the common language, will create an experience that musicians and non-musicians alike will love.

To this day, one of the main reasons that folks like Herbie H, Jarrett, Metheny, Mehldau, Lovano, and many others can connect with audiences beyond the “put me on the list, man” jazz bros, is the ability to create a free-flowing in-the-moment melody that effortlessly weaves its way among the harmonies.  That, a powerful and emotive sound/tone and a deep and rooted sense of rhythm? These are the three legs of the stool that will draw in any listener from a pure babe in the jazz woods to the most seasoned aficionado lovingly caressing their pristine vinyls.

So yes, jazz student aspiring to make your mark. Like Bird said, learn all your chords and scales. (Never forget the second 1/2 of that famous quote -“then throw it away and play music”) Listen to and emulate the masters, especially for feel and sound and how they resolve their lines. (By now, 70 years after Bop, especially with the surfeit of transcriptions and software slowdown programs, there’s not that much mystery to the notes and resolutions if you take the time, on your own or with the help of a teacher). Fully imbibe the subtle moves that make a line swing and breathe.  Comprehensively understand harmony, and how melodic tension and release over that harmony and rhythm can create a captivating drama. But never stop learning those beautiful and timeless melodies, a lifelong practice that will help make you an in-the-moment composer, even if you never set pencil to paper,  (and THAT is something you should begin the lifelong practice of doing).  After all, ultimately, while we pay lip service to it, it is a cliché because it is true.  Soloing is a composed melody in real-time, marinated in a rich stew of conversation with your fellow musicians on the gig.  

However you want to say it, whether “it’s the melody, stupid” or “It don’t mean a thing if it don’t make you sing” or “tell me a story”, the truth is: The song (and melody) is YOU!


Mike Drop 1 – Soul Eyes

in the midst of the covid and constitutional mishigas, have started to learn how to live record in my shed, with a lot of thanks to Dan Feiszli for his sensei guidance on mics, etc…and to Jeff Marrs and Erik Jekabson for help on getting started with Logic. Am not at all interested in doing a ton of software surgery, but just getting live takes as they happen, as close as possible to how we play in my shed for a jam or rehearsal. Getting there, so thought I would share with you a live trio recording that Jeff Marrs, Peter Barshay and I just did in my rehearsal shed. 3 drum mics (2AKG overheads and an EV Bass drum mic), one sax mic (Sennheiser 441) and a bass DI, through Presonus interface into logic. Just as is…I’m getting set up to do instant snapshot takes for a many as a quintet (piano or guitar, 2 horns, bass and drums) once Covid is done, with no headphones, separation or after the fact EQ and other”fixes” in logic, so it is naked, but we get to hear each other just the same as on a gig. So we get what we get. It will get more dialed in, but am pretty happy with this for a first effort. Hope you enjoy it…MZ

ANDREW GILBERT ON EAST WEST – MUSIC FOR BIG BANDS “East West – Music for Big Bands embraces multiplicity. It’s not either/or, it’s and/also. It’s beauty AND burn, intense swing AND sweet balladry, all united under Zilber’s commanding and ever expanding creative purview.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert is the preeminent jazz journalist and critic in the Bay Area, and he covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED’s California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.  The following is his piece on Michael Zilber East West – Music for Big Bands, the Origin Records Double CD release which was released on November 5th, 2019. 

The truth is that Michael Zilber can’t be defined by a simple geographic duality. The saxophonist contains multitudes as a composer, player, arranger, educator, bandleader and collaborator who’s created a far-flung discography featuring some of jazz’s greatest improvisers. But the power of proximity can’t be denied, and his aesthetic has been shaped by the company he keeps, from his British Columbia upbringing to his formative years in the cauldron of New York City to his longtime California residence in the East Bay. His consistently captivating two-disc album East West – Music for Big Bands, slated for release by Origin Records on November 5, 2019, features two distinct orchestras recorded in New York City and San Francisco. His first big band project after 11 previous albums as a leader or co-leader (with NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman, drum maestro Steve Smith, and guitar great John Stowell), East West is a project designed to explore the contrasting sonic modalities that Zilber has experienced on the two coasts. 


“There’s more of a sense of urgency with the New York band and more of a feeling of contemplation and space with the Bay Area band,” he says. “I wanted to make an album that reflected both of those feelings. I wanted to represent the two sides of myself.”


A post-Coltrane master who’s been a creative catalyst on the Bay Area jazz scene for nearly three decades, Zilber conjures an expansive array of moods and textures with the two ensembles. Whether dexterously tearing through a thicket of Coltrane changes or taking the requisite time to caress a haunting melody he’s always telling a story, playing with a narrative drive that’s shaped by his luminous bronze tone, rhythmic prowess and harmonic insight. 


While fully acknowledging the somewhat self-fulfilling nature of the project (“I picked the tunes for each band that lent themselves to the East Coast and West Coast approaches,” he says), Zilber is less concerned about coastal clichés than with revealing different facets of his multifarious musical persona. Often typecast as a post-bop burner, he may embrace the hard-swinging approach with his New York confederates, while reveling in ravishing lyricism with his Bay Area comrades, but he and his mates from the two coasts show they are equally at home with beauty and burn. Both ensembles feature some of jazz’s most exciting and accomplished players. 


Working closely with Dave Liebman drummer Marko Marcinko, trombonist Doug Beavers, and pianist Mike Holober, a close associate from his years in New York, Zilber assembled a 16-piece New York ensemble that includes heavyweights like altoist Todd Bashore (Christian McBride), trumpeter Freddie Hendrix (Village Vanguard Jazz Orchestra), Grammy-nominated trombonist Alan Ferber, and Grammy-winning bassist John Benitez. The similarly bi-coastal (and Grammy-winning) Beavers is also part of the 17-piece San Francisco band, which bristles with world class improvisers such as saxophonists Dann Zinn and Sheldon Brown, trumpeters Mike Olmos and Erik Jekabson, pianist John R. Burr, and guitarist Jeff Massanari. 


Both bands focus on Zilber’s original compositions, pieces often conceived as tributes to his musical heroes inspired by particular recordings or tunes. The New York session opens with his “Fantasia on Trane Changes,” a piece that takes a kaleidoscopic ride through the tenor saxophonist’s famous harmonic progression (a search that culminated with “Giant Steps” and “Countdown”) with six modulations over the course of 96 corruscating measures. Borrowing the form of “Inner Urge” while reversing the chord changes, “Hen House” crackles with the sly wit and surging soul of Joe Henderson. And “Breakfast Club,” based on a fragment from one of Chick Corea’s Three Quartets, offers a potent reminder of Michael Brecker’s preternatural prowess. 


“It’s based on the first two lines of a Brecker lick that’s almost impossible to play on tenor, a rapid-fire line he takes up way into the stratosphere,” Zilber says. “I figured the only way I’m going to learn it is to write a tune that uses it. The melody is based on fragments from Brecker solos. It feels like something that he might have played on harmonically, and it’s my tribute to Mike. We all love him and miss him so much.”


Like several of the pieces on the San Francisco session, these tributes are expanded versions of tunes Zilber recorded on his acclaimed 2017 Origin album Originals For the Originals. But he’s just as effective putting his own stamp on seminal jazz standards, like the arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “Fall.” The piece uses the original melody and harmonies as a point of departure before an Afro-Cuban-tinged passage featuring some torrid trombone work by Beavers and a series of spiraling counter lines framed by a lovely undulating chorale featuring Zilber and brass at the start and and trumpeter Chris Rogers and brass at the coda (a lyrical passage that would have fit neatly on the SF session). Victor Feldman’s “Joshua” has never sounded quite so funky as Zilber’s hip-hop inflected groove gives way to a riveting drum and bass interlude between Benitez and Marcinko. 


Zilber leaves no doubt that we’ve entered a very different realm on the San Francisco session, which opens with“Weather Wayne” (which was also the name of a band Zilber led for several years). The piece evokes the sound and vibe of Wayne Shorter’s genius filtered through Weather Report. Zilber’s soprano sax on this and Fall remind us of his unabashed affinity for Shorter, one that earned him the nickname “Wayne Boy” from jazz great Liebman in the mid-1980s.  There is some particularly supple drum and bass work by Jeff Marrs and Dan Feiszli, the latter also having mixed the New York session. From the Shorterverse Zilber summons a different realm with Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s immortal theme “Over the Rainbow.” Featuring a soul-powered vocal by Joe Bagale (aka the billion-streaming YouTube sensation Otis McDonald), the track sounds as if Dorothy longed for Muscle Shoals rather than Kansas. 


The exquisite ballad “Another Prayer” conjures the numinous spirit of John Coltrane, departing from “I’ll Wait and Pray” by way of a very tender tenor stating of the melody by Zilber and the rhythm section and gradually descending on a sumptuous Mike Olmos flugelhorn solo by way of an orchestration reminiscent of Nelson Riddle’s orchestration from Sinatra’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Speaking of sublime balladry, Zilber’s arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Skylark” is a journey to remember. The beloved melody is untouched, but propelled by a gentle marching groove and recalibrated harmonies the tune turns into an epic migration, hither and thither chase that turns into a trombone chorale. This is a bird of a different feather. 


“If you’re going to do a tune like ‘Skylark,’ you need to find a way to make it your own,” Zilber says. “You need to find your own turf. Honor the original but put your own stamp on it, your own flavor.”


If the album has an emotional core it’s “Shiva For Shifflett,” a quiet meditation on the life and spirit of South Bay bassist John Shifflett based on his burning tune “Quantum Theory.” An invaluable Zilber bandmate and ubiquitous Bay Area sideman who died in 2017, Shifflett possessed an extra dry sense of humor, and he’d surely appreciate Zilber transforming his turbo-charged piece into a spacious, becalmed ballad featuring some poised and lustrous Feiszli bass work. 


“John was in my group Steve Smith for five years and the group with John Stowell with Jason Lewis for 10 years, on several of my tours and on half of my 12 CDs” Zilber says, while also noting that Shifflett anchored four of six previous Origin releases, three co-led with John Stowell and Eleven On Turning Ten, a project setting the poetry of Billy Collins to music. “His playing was strong, empathic, solid, creative and musically appropriate, and he sounded great with anybody. His passing was a huge loss to the SF jazz scene.”


The album closes on another unapologetic blast of beauty with “St. Paul,” a loving hat tip to altoist Paul Desmond based on the opening phrase of Johnny Mandel’s “Emily.” He designed the piece to feature his Electric Squeezebox Orchestra sectionmate Larry de la Cruz, a stalwart Bay Area saxophonist who should be better known. In many ways Zilber would never have undertaken East West without his involvement in ESO, a stellar Bay Area band led by trumpeter Erik Jekabson (with two acclaimed releases on Origin). 


As a founding member of the orchestra, Zilber suddenly found himself with a growing body of material written or arranged for a big band. Though he’s a dauntingly prolific composer with some 3,000 pieces to his credit, this was a new situation. “I was never a guy who woke up in the morning thinking I want to write for big bands,” he says. “Early on we had a regular gig at Doc’s Lab in North Beach and Erik encouraged everyone to write. It was a great way to develop material. If I work on this I know there’s a good band that’s going to play it. Some of the current big band writing for me is like wrapping things up in this lush frosting, and it turns out there is no cake beneath the frosting. For me, the big band composers I loved always started with a strong tune, folks like Duke, Quincy, and Gil Evans.  In that spirit, these are all small group pieces I expanded and had test-driven by the ESO.”


Born and raised in Vancouver, Zilber grew up in an art-steeped family. His father was a playwright and longtime professor of creative writing at the University of British Columbia and his mother had been a ballet dancer in New York City, where the two met and fell in love before moving to Canada. He got his start on the thriving British Columbia jazz scene, and at 18 lit out for Boston to study at New England Conservatory. He eventually earned a PhD in composition from NYU, but a good deal of his “post-graduate” musical studies took place on the bandstand playing alongside masters such as Dave Liebman, Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, Miroslav Vitous, and Mick Goodrick, as well as contemporary peers like Rachel Z, James Genus, Dave Kikoski, Jimmy Earl and others. By the early 1990s, burnt out on what was then a rough and dangerous New York City, Zilber and his wife moved with their infant son to the East Bay, where he’s played a central role in the region’s jazz education scene as a founding faculty member of the California Jazz Conservatory (formerly known as the Jazzschool). Zilber’s Advanced Jazz Workshop ensemble has won 14 Downbeat awards. 


While building a creative life in the Bay Area, Zilber has maintained his New York roots, never seeking to hide his divided allegiances. His 1999 album Two Coasts featured his two working bands, with the majority of the tracks by his New York quartet with pianist Rachel Z, bassist James Genus and drummer Rodney Holmes. His Bay Area quartet featured pianist John R Burr,  bassist Peter Barshay and co-leader drummer Steve Smith. “For me it’s always been a negotiation,” Zilber says. “I’ve always had both coasts in my heart. Both sides are me.” 


Rather than resolving the coastal “conflict”, East West – Music for Big Bands embraces multiplicity. It’s not either/or, it’s and/also. It’s beauty AND burn, intense swing AND sweet balladry, all united under Zilber’s commanding and ever expanding creative purview. 


Andrew Gilbert, Berkeley California


(A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED’s California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications).




John and Paul Reimagined

Very happy and grateful for Andrew Gilbert’s piece on my newest project. Andy captures it better than I could!

All About Jazz Review of Originals – “Zilber is one of the true masters of modern jazz saxophone, his prodigious talents evidenced by his recordings and live performances are truth. Originals For the Originals is a top 10 of 2017 candidate without a doubt, and a must listen for any jazz fan that pays homage to the masters of the past, and moves ever forward with the inspired works of the present.”

Michael Zilber: Originals For The Originals



On his latest release on Origin Records, Originals For the Originals (Origin, 2017), his eleventh as a leader/co-leader, he offers an homage to seven titans of the saxophone which features a top-shelf New York rhythm section with pianist Dave Kikoski, bassist James Genus, and drummer Clarence Penn. “I knew Kikoski from New York and James Genus was the bassist in my band for the last three years there. I love the way they play. I really think Kikoski is one of the ten greatest living jazz piano players. I always wanted to do a record with him and I thought this material was ideal,” says Zilber. West Coast mates Matt Clark (piano), Peter Barshay (bass), and Akira Tana (drums) join for Zilber’s tribute to Joe Henderson, “Hen House.”

Summoning the spirits of transcendent masters such as John ColtraneMichael BreckerWayne ShorterSonny Rollins and Paul Desmond, Zilber takes a very personal approach to channel the essence of his relationships with their collective sound. Rather than trying to evoke the unmistakable sounds of these iconic players, he bases each piece on a melodic phrase or harmonic passage extracted from their music. “It’s an homage, but I’m not trying to be a copycat,” says Zilber.

The opening salvo “Breckerfast Club,” is an up-tempo rant featuring dynamic play from Zilber and Kikoski, both on the tedious head, and the following solos. Inspired by Michael Brecker”s playing on Chick Corea’s “Quartet #2.” Zilber demonstrates his very original, powerful sound on tenor. “Other than Wayne Shorter, no non- Coltrane tenor player had more influence on me,” says Zilber about Brecker, who he considers to have been the most influential of his generation.

On “Autumn Lieb,” Zilber switches over to soprano in reverence for NEA Jazz Master Dave Liebman. Zilber reharmonized and reconstituted pieces of “Autumn Leaves,” and “Autumn in New York, two standards frequented by Liebman over the years. The lyrical melody alludes to a serene and peaceful side to Zilber’s composing and playing, connected in spirit with Liebman’s eloquent phrasing.

Remaining on soprano, “Weather Wayne” is an homage to Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report years in deep burn mode. Shorter is a true renaissance man in the jazz lineage, a bridge to true compositional global outreach, across sixty years. In the post Coltrane world, Shorter revolutionized the high register soprano with a probing multi cultural approach adopted hook, line, and sinker by Zilber. In the interest of allowing the listener some elasticity in their own interpretation, I will just say that this high energy piece will keep me coming back to this album for many years to come.

“Last Night Trane (In the Distance), is an emotive ballad written as an ode to Coltrane’s peaceful and deeply spiritual sound on the album Ballads (Impulse, 1963). ” My approach was simply to write a ballad that feels like what Trane might have played,” said Zilber. He starts the piece with the first two notes from “I Want to Talk About You ” from Coltrane’s early release, Soultrane (Prestige, 1958). Zilber summons beautiful, harmonic colors, and alludes to Coltrane’s sentimental side. His tone, and lush phrasing indeed bares his romantic side as well.

A lot of what makes Originals For the Originals so engaging is that Zilber possesses a striking sound all his own. His tenor sound is deep, dense, and elastic, rounded off by impeccable articulation, while from his probing intuitive sensibility on soprano emerges a softer, more reflective narrative.

While Zilber dedicates his compositions to seven titans of the instrument, this dedicated premise is not what draws me to this recording. If familiarity with historic players such as John Coltrane, or Sonny Rollins draws listeners to explore this album, then Zilber’s homage will have served the purpose of enlightening us to their dynamic talents. Put simply, Zilber is one of the true masters of modern jazz saxophone, and though an unknown anomaly to many, his prodigious talents evidenced by his recordings and live performances are truth. Originals For the Originals is a top 10 of 2017 candidate without a doubt, and a must listen for any jazz fan that pays homage to the masters of the past, and moves ever forward with the inspired works of the present.