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Friday, June 16, 2006

Gian Tornatore: Sink or Swim

The Fresh Sound New Talent label has long been known to seek out emerging players that embody its namesake. While some artists on its roster tend towards the more opaque side of experimental jazz, the label's most successful finds (to these ears) are the ones that walk the line between the familiar and the modern. Saxophonist Gian Tornatore is one of Fresh Sound's more recent discoveries, having released his debut, Sink or Swim, in 2003.

A Northern California native, his professional career began after being invited to perform with Ann Wilson of the rock group Heart, and he's since shared the stage with the likes of saxoponists Don Menza and George Garzone and performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival. He migrated to the East Coast to earn degrees from Berklee, NYU and Teachers College at Columbia and is currently based in New York. In addition to his university studies, Tornatore has also studied with familiar names like Joe Lovano, the aforementioned Garzone, Donny McCaslin, Billy Pierce, Ralph Lalama and Mike Holober.

While Sink or Swim is Tornatore’s debut on record, the quartet achieves a dynamic group sound that rarely appears on freshman albums: comfortable, responsive and like-minded. Artists with working bands often spend their earliest albums searching for a vibe, but this group actually seems borne out of Tornatore's music. Miles Davis's "Nardis" is one of the standout cuts with its shifting tempos and Jon Anderson's subtle Rhodes colorings behind the leader's pure tenor sound. Tornatore's solo is actually mostly tenor/drums dialogue; there's plenty of rhythmic interest, chords or no chords. The original "Upstate" is a dark, straight-eighth note groove with bassist Zach Wallmark and drummer David Christian as the anchors and a simple, memorable soprano sax line -- once again, that pure tone. The equally nocturnal "San Francisco Style" finds the quartet in odd-time territory (alternating bars of 5/8 and 6/8) but the feel is as comfortable as if they were playing in common time. The features here are the eerie textures (Rhodes with Christian's tasty drumming) and warm tenor lines, loping and lyrical, topped off with keen solos from Anderson and Tornatore.

Another virtue is Tornatore's compositional style, which has a maturity rarely found in emerging artists: he's not afraid to use space, to develop the tune and ensure that his ideas connect. He has a keen balance of inside-outside statements. Speaking of performance, his tone is always focused and his vibrato is subtle; he's clearly spent a lot of time honing his sound. Whereas other young players might use a large vocabulary of expressive devices as crutches (vibrato, growls, harmonics, etc.), his voice focuses on the most elemental parts of the music -- melody, harmony and timbre -- and it's all the more sincere because of it. Above all, these newcomers truly inhabit the tunes on Sink or Swim, which certainly makes for the most honest expression in the end.

Sink or Swim (Fresh Sound New Talent)
Gian Tornatore (tenor sax, soprano sax)
Jon Anderson (piano, Fender Rhodes)
Zach Wallmark (bass)
David Christian (drums)

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