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September 30, 2009

MUSIC REVIEW | LOREN STILLMAN

An Alto Saxophonist Steps Modestly to the Fore


By NATE CHINEN

The alto saxophonist Loren Stillman communicates great intensity but not a lot of drama. He’s an intuitive,
self-regulating improviser, averse to any flourish that calls attention to itself. What you hear in his playing is
the real-time synthesis of information, chiefly melodic and harmonic, and the rigorous subtlety of his
response. At 29, he pairs uncannily mature instincts with the open-minded spark of youth.

Well into his roughly 80-minute set at Le Poisson Rouge on Monday night, he ventured a lullaby called
“Puffy” in a free-flowing tempo. It was one of half a dozen songs from his rewarding new album, “Winter
Fruits” (Pirouet), due on Friday. And in one sense it was his first unambiguous solo turn, after plenty of
full-court team exertion.

Mr. Stillman was appearing with Bad Touch, a group that also includes Gary Versace on organ, Nate Radley
on guitar and Ted Poor on drums. Last year this band self-released its substantive debut, “Like a Magic
Kiss,” pushing for recognition as a leaderless collective. That the same personnel appears on “Winter
Fruits,” playing a lot of the same music, could be seen as progress — the new album, recorded and mixed
with a larger budget, has a warmly balanced sound — but it also highlights the practical hurdle facing any
jazz ensemble without a designated frontman, even one as unassuming as Mr. Stillman.

Whatever the background issues, Bad Touch achieved a staggering level of cohesion here. Its efforts often
involved the elasticization of tempo, and an on-the-spot counterpoint fashioned from moving parts: several
melodies began in unison before breaking off into strands. That strategy extended to many of the solos,
which effectively became two- or three-part inventions. (Mr. Versace, a wickedly dynamic player, kept
blurring distinctions between background and foreground.)

Mr. Stillman was responsible for much of the music, including several songs — “Man of Mystery,” “Skin”
and “Like a Magic Kiss” — that appear on both recent albums. He has a momentum-based approach to
composition, layering lines rather than imposing chords.

But two of the set’s most directly propulsive tunes were by Mr. Poor: “Winter Fruits” and “Wade,” both
featuring a haltingly syncopated melody and a variant of funk rhythm. At those moments the surging output
of the group recalled that of Underground, a jazz-rock band with the same instrumental lineup, led by the
tenor saxophonist Chris Potter.

There was always ample reason to focus on Mr. Stillman’s playing in the set. He brought weight and depth
to his sound, unfurling complicated phrases that were somehow devoid of clichés. Still, everything he played
was in the context of the band, which held to a constant ideal: focused flexibility, with a striking absence of
hierarchy.

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Music Review - Loren Stillman - At Poisson Rouge, Stepping ... http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/30/arts/music/30stillman.html...

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