Album review

Oscar Lavën – ‘Questions in Red’

Oscar Lavën – Questions in Red

(Thick Records NZ TH 012 – Review by Nathan Wyde)

The currently very fertile New Zealand jazz scene seems to make musicians versatile almost by default.  Oscar Lavën – a multi-reeds specialist who focuses here on tenor saxophone – has played in most of the jazz styles and his background in big band, Monk and Mingus settings particularly comes through in his compositions and expressiveness on this superbly characterful recording.

Lavën is at once both old school and new. His tributes to Ben Webster and Ornette Coleman sit easily side by side, in the shape of Rasp and the splendidly titled Jesus Saunters Across the Hudson Wielding a Plastic Saxophone, and his improvisations consistently reveal an immersion in the tradition balanced with a fearless, joyful and searching personality of his own.

Both the opening and closing tracks could be calling cards for the album and for Lavën’s quintet equally. The former, Marigold, is a lengthy demonstration of their ability to vary pace and dynamics at will, with a strong theme offering inspiration for dramatic soloing from Lavën, trumpeter Mike Taylor and pianist Ayton Foote. And the latter, Captain Kākāpo, while brief and to the point, captures the quintet in its brisk, crisp pomp.

The understanding between Lavën and Taylor is sibling-like, bringing to mind Wynton and Branford Marsalis’ early 1980s tenure in the Jazz Messengers, with the commensurate New Orleans-esque squeals and squalls as they fly in tight formation.

Lavën’s writing lends itself ideally to this partnership, with the mischievously prowling Night Forest Cat an especially evocative example. Meanwhile, his conception has a terrific interpreter in Scottish drummer, the now Wellington-based John Rae, whose grasp of the saxophonist’s need for support and drive in throaty full cry and delicate colouring in more tender moments is complete.

Île De Batz, a ballad feature for Lavën, with Foote contributing a marvellously complementary solo, offers an ideal opportunity for contemplation before Over-Caffination on a Tiny Scooter lives up to its name with whip-smart ensemble work and a lovely smeary solo from Lavën. 

Apart from the fact that it is a digital-only release for now, however, you could drop the needle on any spot of Questions in Red and find satisfying, thoroughly involving music.  

LINK: Questions in Red at Thick Records

Categories: Album review

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