Review by Tree Palmedo, Feb 10, 2021
The summer of 2020 felt like a rebirth. After months of nationwide shutdowns, even as many venues stayed closed, life began moving again, if only for a few short months. And for Rob Scheps, the prolific saxophonist who has kept firm roots in Oregon while traversing the country, the summer of 2020 was the opportune moment to record some music that had been gestating over the long spring.
As the title suggests, this album was recorded over Labor Day weekend at the Churchill School in Baker City, Eastern Oregon. On the record’s eight original compositions, Scheps stays away from his signature tenor sound, instead alternating between soprano sax and flute. With the help of four sidemen, several of whom double on multiple instruments and percussion, the overall result is a vibrant set of tunes full of strong solos, dynamic twists, and healthy doses of humor.
These dashes of wit are particularly evident on the opener, “Hatshepsut,” an enigmatic number named after the legendary female Pharaoh. While the tune comes out of the gate with a driving groove and a forceful bassline, these features suddenly and unexpectedly give way to laid-back reggae, with Scheps emphasizing off-beats on his soprano. The piece strongly evokes the music of Wayne Shorter thanks to its surprising harmonic shifts and knowing transmutation of well-known grooves. In a similarly clever move, “Stick Pimps” feels like a ‘70s cop-show theme, sporting a bluesy melody and making thorough use of Luke McKern’s heavy wah-wah guitar before segueing briefly into a more subdued ballad.
While the album sports stylistic diversity throughout, the most consistent inspiration here is Coltrane, a clear influence on Scheps. “Valentine” is a tender ballad that opens up into a high-energy modal jam, allowing for drummer Michael Rodenkirch to ably channel Elvin Jones. Scheps also uses the tune to showcase his ample flute chops, unleashing a blistering series of lines that cover the whole range of the instrument. Of course, an even more obvious nod to Trane is the album’s closer, “McCoy’s Luminous Mountains,” a nearly ten-minute showcase for pianist Matt Cooper’s left hand and its synchronicity with bassist Laurent Nickel. In contrast to the dramatic shifts in tone and style throughout the record, this final track stays cooking for its entire runtime, wrapping up with an explosive drum solo that closes out the record with panache.
The energy of live jazz has been missed over the last year, which makes an accomplished live record such as this all the more satisfying. And as Scheps has apparently written many tunes during the pandemic that didn’t make the record, here’s hoping that more inspired recordings can make it to our ears soon.
Listen to and purchase the album here