I first encountered saxophonist Shawn Maxwell when a copy of his debut album came into my hands two years ago. My initial reaction was that this artist was rather cocky; his titling of his album as "Originals" seemed at first to be absurdly audacious; but upon listening to it I discovered to my pleasure that his braggadio was true: he was truly an original in that his music was singularly his own and unattached to any particular genre. An artist in this era who doesn't bow to trends, movements, short-sighted public attention spans or purely commercial drives and instead follows his own inner voice is rare indeed. Songs like "Dangerous Curve," "Lunch Box," "Clayton's Carnival" and "The Sixth" presented a glimpse into the highly creative mind of a young man with aspirations and determination in abundance. Therefore, it was with extreme interest that I recently received his second album, Originals II, wherein the "original" elements that initially attracted me to his sound have not only been retained, but amplified with new weight and texture that speaks of experience gained through steady gigging and composing.
This time out, Maxwell has again surrounded himself with a top-notch crew of some of Chicago's finest young, up-and-coming musicians: keyboardist Matt Nelson, bassist Graham Czach and drummer Brad Dickert, who comprise his current quartet. These three Columbia College grads have played together for years, and this familiarity provides tight and effective interplay.
"Rice" crisply crackles and pops to start things off. Maxwell's confidence and maturity is evident at once in his airy flights, while Nelson comps with aplomb and Czach and Dickert push the music forward powerfully. Nelson's solo is exciting and melodically interesting. "Duck Snort" is a typical example of the Maxwellian style of presenting intricate melodic themes that kick into a swinging section and back again seamlessly, with a middle section showcasing Nelson's acoustic piano mastery. Meanwhile, "Insert Title Here" is a pop song waiting to break out from its jazz shell. With Nelson's electric piano churning and Maxwell turning in some of his most joyous solo flights over a chorus of overdubbed saxes, this song reminds one of a bright sunny summer day. Guitarist Aaron Koppel joins in the fun here with some tasty licks.
Maxwell shows his range by switching over to flute on the lovely "Year Three." Czach (perhaps best known for his work with the Chicago Afrobeat Project) plays a lovely bowed bass solo showing he's not just a solid rhythmic player and Nelson is at his melodic best. The haunting "Grimlock" is the centerpiece of the album with Dickert displaying his prowess, Nelson shimmering on the keys and Maxwell playing the unusual and interesting lines he is known for. When the saxes kick in the end, I get chills.
The reggae-flavored "Working Dog" features trombonist Johanna Mahmud and Maxwell switches to bass clarinet on this fun and flavorful piece that shows another aspect of the Maxwell oeuvre. "Mr. Strongbow" follows and like "The Sixth," on the original Originals, shows Maxwell to be the master of the long line. I first heard this compelling piece performed live several months ago when still a work in progress and knew it would be a successful addition to this recording. The unusually titled "Leather" again spotlights Maxwell's skills on the standard clarinet. With the instrument nearly falling into extinction since the demise of Benny Goodman, it's good to hear someone taking it seriously and in new directions. Czach's walking bass is incredible here and Dickert adds a nice solo.
"Storm" rises and flows like a storm cloud across the sky, while "Sodor" again highlights Maxwell’s penchant for using unusual, left-of-center (but not avant garde) note choices in constructing his themes. "Zoned Out" continues the trend, but this time more upbeat and with a solid groove. The album ends with the intriguing "Fifth Quarter" that starts as a beautiful melodious tune and unexpectedly turns into a rave up with the entire band taking things to a fever pitch.
Once again, Shawn has taken things in a new and exciting, and yes, original direction, that the listeners I'm sure will enjoy, even though they can't pigeonhole him or his music. Don't make the mistake of trying to classify the Shawn Maxwell sound, just sit back and enjoy it because it is good to the last note.