Jazz musicians, whether they play fusion, be-bop or big band, are known for reimagining and rearranging the popular songs of the day. Part of the beauty of jazz music is the way that an imaginative musician such as Charlie Parker can both introduce and reintroduce a tune like “Embraceable You” to the music fans everywhere. Then there is contemporary jazz, where it seems that even the most talented musicians become risk averse whenever they interpret a cut from the pop era.
In their musical translations of pop and R&B tunes, contemporary jazz artists often opt for faithful renditions. That should not be too surprising. An album such as James “Saxmo” Gates’ Gates Wide Open is both an expression of the musician’s artistic vision and his desire to be commercially viable. So when Gates gets his hands on loved pop tunes such as “Remember the Time” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” he largely plays it straight, though there is some improvisation on both cuts, such as where Gates and Fred Wesley trade sax and trombone solos on the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic. Still, it would have nice if Gates had been a little more unfaithful to Jackson’s original by injecting even more jazz into the mix. That is exactly what he does on another Jackson cover and the results are more pleasing. The saxophonist is more willing to take chances on “Unbreakable,” one of Jackson’s more recent and lesser-known tunes. Jackson’s version is firmly rooted in a contemporary hip-hop infused R&B vibe. Gates reimagines the number as jazz/funk fusion number complete with a good helping of brass play in the form of trombones – including some spirited playing at the end by the legendary Fred Wesley. And if there is anybody out there who doubted whether a fusion/contemporary jazz musician could handle straight ahead jazz, Gates dispels that notion with a strong ensemble performance on the cover of Chic Corea’s “Spain.”
The originals on Gates Wide Open encompass a variety of tempos and provide a platform for listeners to learn more about the sources that influenced Gates. The melody and soulfulness of Gates’ playing on “This Day Belongs to Me” bring to mind Grover Washington Jr.’s work. Gates is not a musician who gets bogged down in one tempo. He moves from ballad on “I Remember” to the contemporary R&B styled “Hannah’s Bag.” Each cut shows that Gates is a creative improviser and a generous leader. He provides ample space for talented sidemen such as Wesley and Walter Beasley to step to the forefront.
Well known and loved tunes such as “Remember the Time” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” will attract quite a few listeners to Gates Wide Open. However, those with open minds will linger to hear a musician who has much more to contribute and who very ably operates within the conventions of jazz-fusion. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes