Review - Suresh Singaratnam - 'Lost in New York'

NOTE: This review originally appeared on EJazzNews.

Suresh Singaratnam – Lost in New York (2010 Suresong)

     Meet Suresh Singaratnam. Like Wynton Marsalis, to whom he will often very likely be compared, Singaratnam is trained in both the classical and jazz traditions.  His first two records have offered classical music -- 2009’s Two Hundred Sixty-One, Volume 1 -- and jazz -- 2010’s Lost in New York, the subject of this review.  To have a career begin in impressive musical presence of Marsalis is a bit much, so let us give Singaratnam enough space to let him be his own man.  He’s not lost at all.  He finds his way pretty well, no matter what music he’s playing.

     Canadian by way of the United Kingdom and Zambia, Singaratnam distinguished himself as a teenager in Toronto concert circles, excelling beyond the usual stars of the philharmonic pack on piano and strings.  After a year studying classical trumpet at the University of Toronto, Singaratnam transferred to the Manhattan School of Music, eventually transferring as well to jazz, working with Lew Soloff.  Soloff’s name, of course, is often preceded by “classical trained jazz musician.”  Singaratnam’s graduate work was in the classical field, and it clearly informs his compositions.

     But the whole classical/jazz dichotomy gets tedious, doesn’t it.  It’s like the old commercial for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.  “Your jazz is in my classical!” “No, your classical is in my jazz.”  But the truth is that Louis Armstrong loved his operatic arias, Thelonious Monk loved his piano concertos, and Marsalis – well, everybody already knows about Wynton.  So let’s talk about Suresh’s music.

     “Temporal Incursions,” the opening track of Lost in New York, evokes great energy and a real sense of disorientation, blending tempos and textures  across driving two-bar bass lines that anchors the song like the pavement beneath your feet. Drummer Lee Pearson and pianist Fraser Hollins step up to the challenge of this song and never really lose their sense of time or place.  Following the wildness of the first track, “m104” – named after a Broadway bus route – rolls along through a familiar bebop opening and a blues-based structure. Singaratnam and tenor Saslow chase the rhythm section through this up-tempo all the way uptown and back again
     The breezy mid-tempo bounce of “Beneath A Smile,” complete with springy guitar chords-on-the-quarter-notes courtesy of Jesse Lewis, gives way to dissonance and free jazz work from Singaratnam and Lewis, the latter whose solo sounds as if piped in from one of the moon’s of Jupiter. “Spring For All But Me,” a ballad that features a self-assured vocal by Charenée Wade and a read on Singaratnam’s lyrics:
           Time has passed, blossoms now illuminate the trees,
           Once bare branches soon dressed in green
           It is springtime, a chance to start anew
           Hopeful spring for all but me. . .
 Singaratnam’s solo at the bridge is lovely and wistful, but appropriately brittle and pinched in parts, as if the horn player is more doubtful of the prospects of the new season than his words would suggest.
“Chrysanthemum,” is a perfectly pleasant and layered tune, presenting Saslow another chance to step forward on sax.  One of the high point of the album is “Fortress of Song,” its simple and direct foundation carried forward by bassist Hollins’ secure efforts at the bottom end as the rest of the players build the tune into an awesome mass of musical ideas.  “Remnants of Eternity” has a bright quality that doesn’t seem to fit its ominous title, and “She Spoke So Well,” a jazz waltz, has a contemplative romance

     Singaratnam wisely closes with the outstanding “Peripheral Fission,” which highlights his precision as a player and his boldness as a composer – or is that his precision as a composer and boldness as a player.  Opening with nothing more than some astoundingly fast playing from Singaratnam, the tune locks into a driving vamp that stalks along until, just in time, it releases into a liberated swing.  All the musicians distinguish themselves on this tune – although Lewis, regrettably, is not given a solo – but Pearson’s drumming is exceptional on this last number.

     So let’s just say that Lost in New York is not just an outstanding debut album for a gifted player and composer – it’s simply an outstanding album.  Add to the music the fascinating CD booklet – the first half of which is a miniature graphic novel , the second half being an expert and inspired set of liner notes from Nathaniel Smith, and Lost in New Yorkis an unmistakably original and engaging announcement: Suresh Singaratnam has arrived. He’s standing on the corner of Broadway and West 122nd Street.  Just how he got here – via the jazz bus or the classical one – you’re not really going to care.

Suresh Singaratnam – Trumpet
Charenée Wade – Vocals
Jake Saslow – Tenor Saxophone
Jesse Lewis – Guitar
Fabian Almazan – Piano
Jamie Reynolds – Piano
Fraser Hollins – Bass
Lee Pearson - Drums

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