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Coming Together

Chris Potter, Terell Stafford, Steve Wilson, Keith Javors, Delbert Felix, John Davis – Coming Together

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October 20, 2009

Chris Potter, soprano/tenor saxophone
Steve Wilson, soprano/tenor saxophone
Terell Stafford, trumpet/flugalhorn
Keith Javors, piano
Delbert Felix, bass
John Davis, drums

Chris Potter, Terell Stafford and Steve Wilson join forces with pianist/producer Keith Javors on the powerful New CD “Coming Together,” a moving memorial to the promising young saxophonist/composer Brendan Romaneck.

Coming Together is the title Brendan Romaneck had chosen for what was to be his debut date as a leader – an appropriately positive assessment by the young saxophonist/composer of the state of his promising career as a professional jazz musician. Romaneck, who was born April 6, 1981, in Colchester, Connecticut, developed his love of music at an early age and began playing tenor saxophone while still in grammar school. At the BaconAcademyHigh School he was inspired by his band director Thomas Kessler, who according to Brendan’s mother Louanne “gave him the encouragement and support he needed to take his musical knowledge and skills the next level.” Romaneck’s nascent talents, by all accounts prodigious, led him to Santa BarbaraCityCollege where he continued his musical studies before leaving to matriculate at the University of North Florida’s prestigious jazz program.

Romaneck’s skills blossomed at UNF, where he studied saxophone with the legendary altoist Bunky Green – one of his primary influences – and composition with the pianist Keith Javors. He performed regularly with the school’s first band, under the direction of Javors, appearing at the Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals and on three of the ensemble’s Downbeat award-winning albums, including the highly regarded Through His Eyes: For Bunky Green. Green speaks with warm affection for his former charge. “First of all, he was a great student; always ready, always prepared,” he says, “but what he really had was a degree of originality, which is generally not the case because it takes a long time to reach that particular point. Brendan always had his own take on things and that’s what I liked about him. He was very original and he had a great big heart that came through in his music when he played. Feeling … we call it soul and Brendan, he had that.”

Javors echoes his colleague’s feelings. “Brendan was an outstanding musician and human being,” the pianist says. “He had a realness and warmth as a person that I think translated very directly to his music.” Romaneck worked regularly in the Southeast with Javors, as well as with the other members of the rhythm section heard here, bassist Delbert Felix and drummer John Davis, a fellow member of the UNF Jazz Band 1. After his graduation in 2004, Romaneck (as well as Davis) was accepted into the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead national jazz residency program for young, emerging artists at the KennedyCenter, which included a week of intense training in performance, composing, and arranging led by renowned saxophonist/educator Nathan Davis. The following year, Brendan accepted a teaching assistantship to pursue a Masters Degree at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville under former Art Blakey-Wynton Marsalis pianist Donald Brown. His future was indeed coming together.

Not long after receiving the news of his assistantship, on April 20, 2005, two weeks to the day after his twenty-fourth birthday, Brendan Romaneck was tragically struck down by a car. The life, so full of promise, had ended; the sound of his saxophone silenced. At the time of his death, Brendan was preparing for the recording of his first CD as a leader. The music was written, the musicians chosen, the studio booked. According to Javors, “After Brendan was killed, love and support from everyone was so high and at the family’s wishes we continued the sessions. He continues, “For the saxophone parts, I first called Bunky (Green) who was tied into a recording contract at the time, and then asked Chris (Potter) and Steve (Wilson), incredible artists and both a good fit for the style of music.”

Romaneck himself had called Terell Stafford to participate in the date. “He could have chosen any musicians he wanted to choose to be on it and when he called me I was honored that he chose me,” the trumpeter proudly says. “After I said yes, he called me every couple of weeks just to check in and so we had contact and it was nice. I didn’t know him that well, but I got to know him just through his biweekly calls. We set up all the details, he sent me the music, had all the directions on what I was supposed to do on the music and everything was all set. Then I got a call from Keith Javors letting me know what happened. I was pretty devastated; I was in shock about it. His parents and the musicians decided since the date was set and all the musicians were set to come down … let’s keep the date and we all came down and we did the record.”

Stafford continues, “This was probably one of the most emotional dates I’ve ever done. Just playing a record for someone’s spirit and someone’s soul who wasn’t on this earth anymore. The record had so much more meaning and so much more intensity. You could feel that the whole day in the studio, just watching his friends coming in and out and not being able to keep it together. And his parents — it was a really emotional day. So this young man had a huge impact, his presence and his musicality really impacted a community and a community of musicians that didn’t even know him. All of us from New York were really impacted when we got through. We were all touched.” As such, the date’s title Coming Together, originally chosen by Romaneck as a personal assessment takes on even greater meaning as an evocation of the musicians joining each other to pay tribute to a fallen comrade.

The disc, which is culled from two separate sessions – the first featuring a quartet with Chris Potter, the second a quintet fronted by Terell Stafford and Steve Wilson – begins with Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s classic My Shining Hour, spotlighting Chris Potter’s powerful Rollinsesque tenor driven by Felix’s bass and Davis’s drums. Although one of the three pieces on the date not composed by Romaneck, and the only track sans the producer’s piano, Javors felt that it was a fitting way to start things off because it was a song Brendan enjoyed playing and its title reflects what the date was to be for the young saxophonist. The song’s lyric, hearkening to “an angel watching over me,” makes it all the more poignantly appropriate.

The beauty of Romaneck’s writing is immediately evident in his Dream Behind The Winter. “He wrote from his heart,” Stafford says of the late saxophonist’s composing. “All of his writing was really what he heard and what he felt, which is huge thing.” The feeling that most clearly comes through in the music is one of love, the force that apparently drove his burgeoning art. Full Moon is song so full of romantic implications as to belie the composer’s youthful years. Bunky Green, speaking of Brendan, notes, “He had the ability to play a ballad. A lot of times the young people get the chops, but not that feeling and the ability to play meaningfully – that heartrending type of thing; he had that.” The ability to play in a deeply felt manner obviously also informed the young saxophonist’s writing, as heard here.

3 Steps Ahead Of The Spider, a showcase for Potter’s expressive soprano saxophone is indeed a truly wondrous work, with its winding lines and shifting rhythms demonstrating a compositional acumen that eschews the commonplace in order to achieve the too often-lacking element of surprise that makes a piece really memorable. Javors remembers the Jimmy van Heusen – Phil Silver collaboration Nancy With The Laughing Faceas another standard tune that Romaneck like to play. Here the pianist performs the piece as a duet with Potter on tenor. The first half of the record ends emotionally with Brendan’s You’ll Never Know, a fervent gospel inflected line passionately played by the group with Potter on soprano. The piece’s title only adds to the sadness inherent in the music and one can be sure that more than one tear was shed during its performance and playback.

The date’s second session, featuring the quintet with Terell Stafford and Steve Wilson is further indicative of the breadth and depth of Romaneck’s compositional capabilities, with the added horn reflecting a sophisticated utilization of counterpoint and harmony. Coming Together is an optimistic ode in the Jazz Messenger mold introduced by Javors’ piano vamp, which gives the tune a sense of urgency and serves as an exhilarating backdrop for Davis’s exciting drum break later in the piece. Stafford notes, “All of his writing was really what he heard and really what he felt, which is a huge thing, especially in college. Sometimes we can choose that way of finding sequences or patterns to use in our writing, but this was really from his heart.” The Vibe is a relaxed straight ahead swinger featuring Felix along with the horns. Terell continues, “It was really nice to play his music and as a composer I think he really wrote for the guys that he chose for this record, which was really important. You could kind of hear his voice inside of his music, which I thought was special, too.” Romaneck’s voice is loud and clear on Minion, his most daring work on the album, a spacious outing with a suspended timeline revealing the influence of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock’s Miles Davis Quintet writing on the young composer.

The album’s final “standard,” Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel’s seventies soul classic Killing Me Softly With His Song, has surprisingly been seldom performed by jazz instrumentalists. Javors remembers it as another piece that Romaneck enjoyed playing. He plays it here as an emotional duet with Steve Wilson on soprano. The pair inserts a gospel tag at the end to make their own mark on the Roberta Flack hit. The quintet returns to close the date with Romaneck’s hard swinging 11-02, the late composer’s take on blues. The band stretches out forcefully on the up-tempo burner to end things on a fiery note.

Brendan Romaneck sadly never got to record the music that he wrote so well or hear it played so excellently by the musicians he chose to interpret it and that is a tragedy almost as great as the loss of the young man’s life. However, through the efforts of his family and many friends the world can happily know something of the talent that was, in the words of his mentor Bunky Green, “just starting to bloom.” “There was a lot of potential there,” Green says. “A lot of potential.” Hear it here.

Russ Musto

New York, NY

7 September 2008

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