It’s both interesting and revealing that Shawn Maxwell has decided to coin his new sophomore effort similarly to his debut. He called his first album back in 2005 Originals, and he’s labeled his brand new set, Originals: II. The title choice is revealing and logical; Maxwell is indeed an “original,” and his second woodwind-based, multi-instrumental work is as unique as the first and about as original as contemporary jazz gets.
It’s not often that jazz fans come across this kind of originality. It takes brass—both kinds —to find a place amid the conventional sounds of the contemporary and progressive sides of the genre. And while that simple search takes time, so does it take time to find a place amid that territory to find something that jazz fans are willing to embrace and appreciate. Maxwell captures this originality in large part thanks to his talented ensemble. Pianist Matt Nelson, bassist Graham Czach, and drummer Brandon Dickert join Maxwell, and help make his music refreshingly uncategorizable. Together since 2004, the band tackles challenging motifs and innovative execution, making Originals: II an impressive, ear opening experience.
Out front of his quartet, Maxwell, a teacher, composer and arranger, proves himself to be a fine leader. His reed playing is excellent and his compositional skills are, well, original and exhilarating. From his time slogging the Chicago jazz circuit as well as tours internationally in Europe, Maxwell has become an immensely entertaining performer. Through his touring he’s developed a loyal fan-base, an audience that thrives on the dazzle, the excitement and the innovation that Maxwell brings every time he steps on stage.
Shuttling between flute, clarinet, and alto saxes, Maxwell’s versatility lends Originals: II a distinctive flavor, spicy and diverse, with lots of changes, nuances and subtleties. Songs like the opening “Rice” and “Grimlock” are rhythmic wonderlands, while the gritty “Working Dog” has a funky Caribbean flair. Maxwell’s clarinet tone on “Leather” calls to mind the great Benny Goodman, while his flute on “Year Three” is haunting and evocative. “Zoned Out,” with its soft bed of keyboard, features a tenor motif characterized by both sweetness and muscularity. There’s great work and solid performances all throughout Originals: II. Its straddling of past and present, traditional and progressive, land it in rarefied musical territory and make it a seriously satisfying listen. Original!
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