Saxophonist Jimmy Greene opens his new Mack Avenue album “While Looking Up” with the Cole Porter classic “So In Love”. And once again, from the very start of the disc, his lyricism and intense and emotional playing becomes the main force, like on his previous projects. Aided by guitarist Lage Lund and pianist Aaron Goldberg, with ample support by bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer Kendrick Scott, the piece effortlessly becomes something entirely new, with the melancholy melody still intact, but an immensely vulnerable and at the same time stable statement placed on top of it.
But of course, it’s in the original compositions where Jimmy and his new work shine the most. There is the very haunting, bluesy, mysterious “No Words”, where his lower register at times seem to come from way down low and Aaron plays some effective Rhodes, and thus, moving the piece to some mid 70s fusion terrain too. Stefon Harris is featured on the pretty expressive “Always There” on marimba, executed with a fierce tempo and some amazing drum work by Kendrick. About the idea for the album, Jimmy says, “…I can also look outside of myself and see the state we’re in, constantly bombarded with the chaos that’s become normalized in our society and our country. In both instances, it’s easy to walk away feeling disillusioned and, in many ways, hopeless. But I’m always reminded to look upward.”
This optimism can be felt and heard on “April 4th”, where Jimmy also plays clarinet, bass clarinet, and flute, in addition to his regular soprano sax. There is a wonderful vibes solo by Stefon, adding much joy and luscious knack to this almost liltingly positive tune. Switching to tenor on the second standard of the set, “Good Morning Heartache”, Jimmy turns to some amazingly cool and simultaneously somber playing with only bass and drums added. “Overreaction” comes across as too unbalanced for me, but “Steadfast” saves the day, eschewing too much modernism and experimentation, but focussing more on feeling and touch. Highlight of the set is Jimmy’s ballad interpretation of Whitney Houston‘s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”, turning the pop dance number into a poignant, fascinatingly gorgeous, almost heartbreaking piece.
“If I’m not able to find strength or peace by looking inward, or if I’m not able to do it by looking outward to my immediate surroundings, I have to look upward”, a quote from Jimmy’s pastor about the inspiration for the album, its hopefulness once again emphasized on the title track, which oozes elegance and masterful playing (there are some Joshua Redman-isms on this particular tune). I really dig Aaron’s soulful playing on this one. And the whole team comes together for a rather inspirational, very fulfilling finale on “Simple Prayer”.