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Saxophonist Joel Frahm Proves Himself A Master Storyteller On 'The Bright Side'


This is FRESH AIR. Saxophonist Joel Frahm has played and recorded with jazz stars like Brad Mehldau, Matt Wilson and Jane Monheit, among scores of others besides making records of his own. In 2019, Frahm's Trio went into the studio fresh from a two-week European tour. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says they were all warmed up, especially the leader.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Joel Frahm has a brawny tenor saxophone sound, strong and confident from top to bottom. The proof is all over his new trio album, "The Bright Side," but his sound is just the start. The old jazz masters said a solo should tell a little story, meaning it should have a sure pace and momentum, interesting developments, maybe a twist or a new episode you didn't see coming. Master storytellers keep us guessing what comes next. Joel Frahm has that knack. This is from his tune the "Beeline."


WHITEHEAD: Joel Frahm wrote most pieces on his new album, including salutes to a couple of saxophone heroes, Joe Henderson and Benny Golson. "Thinking Of Benny" honors Golson with a catchy written phrase put through its paces and some old-school tenor swagger. Frahm caps his improvisation with an upward shooting phrase, setting up the start of Dan Loomis' bass solo, a Benny Golson kind of move.


WHITEHEAD: Bassist Dan Loomis and Toronto drummer Ernesto Cervini have a springy swing feel, especially when Cervini wields the wire brushes. But they'll also take a firmer hand, laying down a little vintage funk on the tune "Omer's World." The saxophonist hardens up his sound in response, giving it a rhythm and blues edge, just as storytellers modulate their voices.


WHITEHEAD: Stripped-down trios like this one make the players work harder with no piano to fill in everywhere. But this spare trio can be quiet, too, more intimate. A couple of tunes on Joel Frahm's album show that side, in particular Ernesto Cervini's hymn "The Beautiful Mystery."


WHITEHEAD: The trio run through a few moods, but their chemistry and Frahm's core values hold it all together. The title track to "The Bright Side" is a hard-to-shake-off earworm, real Pied Piper stuff - one more tale the tenor can tell. Joel Frahm recently moved to Nashville after 30 years in New York. Showing up with a solid record like this in a town that prizes creative musicians, he must be making new friends quickly.


DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "The Bright Side" by saxophonist Joel Frahm.

On tomorrow's show, we speak with Colson Whitehead, who won Pulitzer Prizes for his last two novels, "The Nickel Boys" and "The Underground Railroad," which was adapted into an Amazon TV series. Whitehead's new novel, "Harlem Shuffle," is a crime novel set in the early '60s about small-time and big-time crooks and about race and class. I hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOEL FRAHM'S "THE BRIGHT SIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.