Firefly is the latest record by saxophonist Alexa Tarantino. By my count this is her third as a leader, following a brilliant 2019 debut which featured some extraordinary players, including Christian Sands (piano) and drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. At just 28, Tarantino is firmly cementing herself in the modern pantheon of great saxophonists – equally adept on alto and soprano and here also showcasing her skills on related instruments clarinet, flute and alto flute. Once again she leads an incredible band, drummer Rudy Royston drives the rhythm with bassist Boris Koslov, pianist Art Hirahara and vibraphonist Behn Gillece move between rhythm section and melody leaders – taking solos and adding colour in and around Tarantino’s instruments.
A student of Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz At Lincoln Centre Orchestra, Tarantino has also Arturo O’Farrill (the son of Chico) and has sided on records by The DIVA Jazz Orchestra, The Verve Jazz Ensemble, Lioness and the Posi-Tone Records Collective. Here on the Posi-Tone label she strikes out with a comprehensive set of post-bop standards reimagined and some originals from her own pen and other group members. It’s a refreshing blend of balladry (Mindful Moments) and some break-out bop-inspired blowing sessions (Surge Capacity).
Wayne Shorter is clearly a hero and is represented here by a couple of his stellar compositions from his Miles Davis years and solo ventures – but it’s when we hear how that influence has been distilled to Tarantino’s own compositions (as on Daybreak) that we can really appreciate the magic; the skill of her own playing and the breadth of the influence – the way she makes his compositional voice just a part of the flavour within her own.
All of the band members have great moments here – both compositionally and instrumentally – it’s an incredible unit in fact. Rootless Ruthtlessness, on the one hand, is a killer ensemble showcase, working at a breakneck hurtle reminiscent of Jackie McLean in full flight or the ‘jazz’ albums that Ginger Baker made with Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell. And then, just like that, we hear the band almost dangling in a spider-web of sound, weightless, time suspended on Wayne Shorter’s gorgeous Billie Holiday tribute, Lady Day.
This is a killer jazz album. From a brilliant bunch of players with Alex Tarantino fully establishing herself as bandleader on this set.