Album review…James Saxsmo Gates, “Gates Wide Open” (804 Jazz, 2013)

Drawing on a long local history of African American music in Richmond, Virginia, and his own history of family music-making and overcoming hardship, newly appointed head of Jazz Studies at Virginia State University James Gates presents Gates Wide Open, an energized and highly personal album ranging across genres and instrumentations, but held together by superior musicianship and commitment to melody and groove. On this record, Gates champions old-school smooth jazz rooted in black urban culture, and surprises with fresh arrangements of classic R&B and pop, while occasionally flashing brilliant moments of chromatic bop lines suggestive of his diverse range of skills.

Gates Wide Open, 804 Jazz FMM 0113-2, 2013. Personnel: James “Saxsmo” Gates, alto and tenor saxophones, keyboards, programming; Walter Beasley, alto saxophone; Carlton Blount, vocals; Freddie Fox, guitar; Keith Horne, bass and steel guitar; Bill McGee, flugelhorn and trumpet; Fred Wesley, trombone; Leroy Barley, trumpet; Kevin Davis, percussion; Lance Dickerson, keyboards; Kenneth Gill, trombone; Charlayne “Chip” Green, vocals; Reginald Greenlee, trombone; Lynn Grissett, trumpet; Brevan Hampton, percussion; Dr. Weldon Hill, keyboards; James Holden, tenor and baritone saxophone; Brandon Lane, bass guitar, keyboards, programming, trombone; Hannon D. Lane, guitar, keyboards, programming, triangle, trombone; Hannon T. Lane, keyboards, programming; Gregory McCallum, Sr., baritone saxophone; Brian Miller, alto saxophone; Ellis Muhammed, keyboards; Charles Newton, trombone; Andy Paolantonio, tenor saxophone; Alan Parker, guitar; Marcus Parker, drums; Tom Reeves, guitar; Desiree Roots-Centeio, vocals; Kevin Simpson, tenor saxophone; Matthew Steele, bass; Albert Strong, trumpet; Bluford Thompson, tenor saxophone; Billy Williams, drums. Tracks: This Day Belongs to Me; Unbreakable; Detailed; Remember the Time; I Remember; Ain’t Nothing But the Real Thing, Baby; Hannah’s Bag; Have I Told You Lately That I Love You; Ulterior Motive; The Hood; I Cry Out for You; Rebirth; Spain; Reprise – Remember the Time. Recorded at 804 Jazz, In Your Ear, and WinLane Studios. www.saxsmo.com.

Remarkably personal and transparent in his approach at the saxophone and in his liner notes, Gates preaches passion and care for our personal relationships and the music that accompanies our lives. This clarity of message is particularly well-suited for Gates’s sensitive and faithful melodic approach throughout the album. He begins with “This Day Belongs to Me,” in which his short improvisation uses motives from the song’s bright melody as jumping off points, adding embellishments. Establishing a positive and soulful feel from the first measures, Gates welcomes us with a promise of “bright moments,” the standard greeting of the Richmond Jazz Society, in which he has played a significant role as performer, educator, and advocate.

Following with one of several dramatic and surprising covers. Gates launches into “Unbreakable,” a homage to and cover of Michael Jackson. The heavy backbeat and hip hop percussion takes the record in a totally different direction and hints at the diverse range of styles through which Gates works. Two important guest artists make their first appearances on this track: trombonist Fred Wesley, Gates’s former teacher and long-time collaborator, and guitarist Freddie Fox lend extra depth and virtuosity to the whole record. Here their solos— bluesy, laid back, and squarely in the pocket —provide the perfect balance to the sequencing and more aggressive groove.

As the album progresses, Gates begins to stretch out: between the solos on “Detailed” and “Remember the Time,” listeners will have a better grasp of Gates’s facility and inventiveness for improvisation, in which he effortlessly mixes a blues-oriented, groove-heavy approach with the most intricate and expertly-navigated chromatic bebop lines. Both “Detailed” and “Ain’t Nothing But the Real Thing, Baby” feature background vocalists adding a perfectly timed and well arranged contrast. On the latter—a cover of the iconic hit by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell—Gates again executes the melody faithfully but with great energy and freshness, before launching into a memorable and uplifting improvised exchange with Wesley.

“Hannah’s Bag” features yet another different groove and shows off Gates’s compositional skills. The story behind this tune is powerful and Gates alludes to it in the liner notes: “Growing out of a perception of injustice, this song is dedicated to the character of virtue in that one should not pre-judge another because of their position, title, race, creed, or status in life, interpretations which undeniably are evident by its many successful revivals.” Grounded in electric funk and sequencing, Gates sails through the bebop-heavy melody and delivers yet another exciting improvisation.

On “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You,” Gates takes a backseat here to guest vocalist Carlton Blount (formerly of the group The Main Ingredient), but still manages to add forward motion to the cover through energized lines weaving around and in-between the vocal phrases. This track is one of the emotional and musical climaxes of the album, with Blount and Gates trading and elevating each other to successively higher states as the track launches off. Here Gates switches between alto and tenor saxophone, the latter as an homage to his late father, a cornerstone of the Richmond jazz community. “I Cry Out for You” reminds us just again how personal this album is. This reflective track inspires both empathy and admiration for the human spirit, with a child’s voice sampled in amid Gates’s calls and cries.

For those sufficiently enticed by Gates’s hints of “straight-ahead” skills thus far in the album, “Spain” delivers in a big way. This is a big band arrangement Gates wrote while studying with Branford Marsalis in the Master’s of Jazz Performance program at North Carolina Central University. Listening to this track is akin to being immersed in Gates’ focused imagination and technical skilled played out, multiplied, and extended among all the musicians and instruments of the big band ensemble. One of the sure highlights of the album, “Spain” features another guest spot by Wesley, an intense and virtuosic sax soli, and an all-around stellar performance by Gates.

It seems as though “Reprise – Remember the Time” is included at the end of the album as further elaboration of Gates’s improvising prowess—to give him just a bit more space to play. It also offers a more-than-sufficient rebuttal to any would-be naysayers who might categorically dismiss records marketed to smooth jazz audiences or containing pop crossovers. Gates chose the album and its aesthetic intentionally and with care, offering his personal take on jazz and popular music, along with some heartfelt tributes to his musical mentors and family.

Professor Gates was one of my mentors in Richmond, Virginia, where he taught me about passion and commitment, played on my first demos, and hired me for some of my first gigs. He was relentless and uncompromising about taking care of the music, but always with positive encouragement and dedication to his students. In a word, Gates taught me how to shed. We did not play the music of Gates Wide Open, though, but the intricate bebop tunes called off at breakneck tempos that separate the dedicated few from the less motivated. With his third album, Gates has released a record diverse in its influences and repertoire that emphasizes groove and primacy of melody that can deceptively overshadow a high level of technical facility and sophisticated improvisation heard in fleeting moments on the album. It’s these fleeting moments that I recognize most as Gates’s music, but there’s more to his story and his sound. (For more on his story, this album, and our work together, check back soon for the transcript of a conversation we had about the album.) Unapologetically personal and passionately executed, Gates Wide Open presents Gates in an honest and confident manner that will appeal to many different demographics. Musical tastes aside, there is no denying the unabashed musicality and unwavering groove of this record.

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