Alto saxophonist Jason Stillman’s Montreal-based quartet makes its recorded debut on Prelude, a sunny and engaging blend of Stillman originals and jazz standards whose spacious boundaries provide ample room for ardent blowing, especially by Stillman and pianist Josh Rager. Although the group has been a working unit for more than five years, Stillman waited until the time was right before entering a studio, and his patience has paid dividends, as the group dynamic is impressive throughout.
As for the music, it was clearly chosen with care, with Stillman’s five handsome compositions supplemented by Allie Wrubel / Herb Magidsen’s lovely “Gone with the Wind,” Duke Ellington‘s luminous “Prelude to a Kiss” and the tantalizing finale, Fats Waller/ Andy Razaf’s “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” Stillman is an elegant straight-ahead soloist whose tone and phrasing are remindful of such contemporaries as Vincent Herring, Kenny Garrett and Bobby Watson, with an occasional nod to earlier trailblazers including Lou Donaldson, Herb Geller and Frank Morgan. The references, however, are always oblique, as Stillman takes care not to emulate anyone.
The session opens on an upbeat note with Stillman’s buoyant “Temporary Insanity,” which precedes “Gone with the Wind” and two more winners by the leader, “Suicide Squeeze” (he does have a knack for creating catchy song titles) and “Ulysses.” “Kiss” is followed by the robust “Quartet Blues,” warmhearted “Tribute” and easygoing “Keepin’ Out of Mischief.” Bassist Paul Rushka states his case earnestly on “Wind” and “Mischief,” drummer Dave Laing on “Suicide Squeeze” and “Quartet Blues.” As for Rager, he’s a smart, confident soloist who shines in every setting. Together, Stillman and his teammates have produced an introductory recording whose concept and execution are admirable, a singularly likable album that is definitely worth hearing and savoring more than once.