|One Final Note Review I like the title of soprano saxophonist Chris Kelsey’s new solo session, Beyond Is and Is Not, but he could have drawn on the sole original composition “Memoir” for an apt, albeit more prosaic name. Whatever it’s called Beyond Is and Is Not is a session that uses standard literature as a starting point for musical autobiography. This is quite a different matter from the usual standards session as airplay grubbing, or even the more honorable enterprise of musicians using well-worn tunes to set their places within the tradition. Instead this is a kind of musical coming-of-age novel. The epitome would be vocalist-percussionist David Moss’ My Favorite Things on Intakt from 1990. Interesting that while writers tend to offer their coming-of-age narratives early in their careers, musicians tend to do them later—do musicians just take longer to grow up? Regardless Kelsey’s recital is fully mature work. His serious, deliberate deconstruction of these tunes is as much a reflection of his musical personality as Moss’ wildman approach was of his.
Kelsey’s program clearly reflects the signposts of his development starting with “Afro Blue”, one of Coltrane’s great soprano performances. Yet the Mongo Santamaria classic also shows how Kelsey makes each song his own. He opens by worrying a phrase that sounds like a lick that may have clung to his inner ear after listening to Coltrane’s Birdland performance. He reiterates it with variations, letting it lead him to the original melody. On Shorter’s “Footprints”, Kelsey interjects his approximation of the bass vamp into his exploration of the melody. On Ellington’s “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart”, he tips his horn to Johnny Hodges in the theme statement, before reverting to his own voice for a joyous extemporization. His whinnying at one point evokes the trick brass work of Nanton, Miley, and Williams as much as Hodges.
“Memoir” explores the intersection of Monk and Tristano. Think “Work” meets “Wow”. This highlights his link to the Tristanoite hornmen Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz as well as Monk acolyte Steve Lacy. Kelsey closes with two pairings: Dexter Gordon’s “Fried Bananas” flowing into “Blue Monk” and, in a greater reach, Ornette Coleman’s “Chronology” linked with a dramatic descending figure to “Stella by Starlight”. Kelsey introduces the title of each number in a dispassionate voice that may betray the influence of Jamey Aebersold. Throughout Kelsey’s lines are relentless. Closely recorded, you can hear him breathe—circular breathing, I believe, at least in some spots. This adds to the session’s sense of intimacy. Beyond Is and Is Not has a listenability and appeal not common among solo horn sessions.
Usually I have one of two reactions to new versions of old songs. One, admittedly, the most common, is to let the listening experience fade from memory. Other better recordings will send me to refer to the originals or other notable renditions. In the case of Kelsey’s tributes, though, it provided such insight into his work that it made me want to go back and listen to his CDs devoted to his original compositions.