Look for Water (2023)
By Dave Lisik | Published June 2023
1. Toy Piano (0:41)
2. Green Light for Billy Drewes (7:43)
3. New Dawn (6:45)
4. Look for Water (6:39)
5. Sweet Magnolias (5:12)
6. Half a Baton (5:38)
7. Milford (3:47)
8. Yusef (4:10)
9. Luminosity (11:37)
During my seven years living in Memphis, Tennessee, the extraordinary New Orleans-based jazz quartet, Astral Project made frequent concert appearances on stage at the Young Avenue Deli in Midtown. When the band’s Memphis dates were getting close, University of Memphis jazz bass professor, the late Tim Goodwin, in his masked enthusiasm, would summon jazz students from the hallway into the main basement jazz combo room and make them listen to Astral Project’s hard-grooving “Foxy Roxy” on the stereo, forcefully persuading his students to attend the show. Things were pretty busy for most of us back then but these gigs were still real highlights on the calendar and rarely missed.
Three of the members of Astral Project, Tony Dagradi, James Singleton, and Johnny Vidacovich, make up the core of the band on saxophonist, Jeff Coffin’s new release, Look For Water. At first glance, you might assume that Coffin planned to hire much of a pre-existing band for obvious musical advantages but, according to Coffin, the reality was less intentional. I’m not sure that I hear a conscious choice to make a statement about traditional New Orleans music by hiring these musicians for this project, but certainly Coffin was counting on a synergy between three of the Crescent City’s most musical residents and collaborators, and their ability to deliver stunningly good performances and group dynamics in a “free” environment. Coffin says as much in his notes, using the word “telepathic” to describe these musicians' relationship. Whatever the origin of this session, given Coffin’s compatibility blending saxophone sounds with Dagradi, and every other element of time and interaction that happens on this project, I’d consider that choice to be a win.
Coffin also mentions several gigs and meetings with New Orleans cellist, Helen Gillet and how these occasions helped move things in the direction of this session. Coffin and Gillet also have a duo recording, Let It Shine, which is in a different bag but also beautiful. Gillet, fittingly, from a narrative standpoint, appears on Look for Water's track, “Luminosity,” and adds something more substantial to the album than just the length of her solo. (Time spent with Let It Shine will be equally rewarding.)
After a very short track playing with a mechanically-noisy “Toy Piano,” “Green Light for Billy Drewes” is really the opener. The two saxophone, bass and drums opening head is a short, clean statement about what the album is about: a chordless, free exhibition of generous, interactive mastery. The fact that Singleton and Vidocovich have played an incalculable number of hours together is apparent everywhere on this recording. The first bass solo is really an equally measured duet between the two and the sensitivity of the drumming and the willingness of each player to weave their ideas together is an early musical payoff. Coffin’s soprano saxophone sound on, but not restricted to, this track is marvelous.
“Half a Baton” has a long and intense saxophone exchange where Coffin and Dagradi do a remarkable job of complementing each other while filling up most of the space. This amount of busy counterpoint could be annoyingly monotonous in lesser hands but these players manage to always be captivating, displaying instinctive abilities to imitate and contrast. Vidacovich is also equally compelling during an extended solo. The natural sound of the drum recording is another factor which makes the album sound great - always a helpful place from which to start.
As can be characteristic of free music, very little of Look for Water has the band spelling out an obvious pulse, which can require more direct attention from a casual listener. But these musicians are always listening, always sensitive to one another, and have the virtuosity to make the musical conversations they’re having, captivating for the duration.
More information: jeffcoffin.com
Tenor and Soprano Saxophones: Jeff Coffin
Tenor Saxophone: Tony Degradi
Bass: James Singleton
Drums: Johnny Vidacovich
Cello: Helen Gillet (track 9)
Engineering: Matt Aguiluz (May 28, 2021) at Preservation Hall Recording Studio, New Orleans, LA
Mixing: Jeff Coffin
Mastering: Adam Grover
Produced by: Jeff Coffin
Shadows and Light
Matt Wilson Quartet