For those who may be unfamiliar with the various origins of jazz music, let us first begin with a quick history lesson. First, what is known as traditional jazz music originally took form in the early 20th century, combining ragtime elements with Dixieland styles to form compositions typically associated with the southern part of the country, more specifically New Orleans. The most prominent name someone can attach to this style is Louis Armstrong. For those who are already well-versed in traditional jazz, names such as Joe Oliver or W.C. Handy come to mind.
Another form of jazz music is hard bop — a variation of the better-known bebop. This particular form leans heavily on rhythm and blues music. Pianos and saxophones are two instruments that typically shine in this form. The most prominent names associated with this style are Miles Davis and John Coltrane, two giants in American musical composition. Again, for those who may already be well-versed in hard bop, names such as the legendary drummer Art Blakey or his Jazz Messengers counterpart, Horace Silver, probably ring a bell.
Local jazz quartet Project Natale, led by brothers Joseph and Lou Natale, draw from both styles on their latest release, “Endangered Liberties,” a five-song EP that is living proof great musicianship and advanced musical minds exist within the local music scene. Running more than an hour long despite its low amount of tracks, the effort is a nearly flawless display of great performances, all the way from Bob Butta’s exquisite piano playing prowess to Carl Cornwell’s skillful saxophone styles. “Endangered Liberties” isn’t just a great local album. It’s a great jazz album.
The set kicks off with the title track, a swinging showcase for Cornwell’s spectacular alto abilities. As the horn player takes the lead, about one minute into the track, it becomes clear this quartet is a step above its local counterparts. His staccato-laden offering eventually gives way to Butta’s Herbie Hancock-like piano playing that only adds spice to an already smoking-hot dish. The conversation the two players have with their instruments is enough to keep any listener’s attention for the entire 9:52.
“You Tell Me” is an excellent example of how much a good rhythm section can make any good set of musicians great. Joseph’s bass begins the track before his brother’s drums kick in to provide an upbeat feel that sees an odd time signature excel beautifully. Cornwell’s sax goes wild as the song finds its feet and Butta’s keys help provide groundwork for the expressions the horn player so effortlessly conveys.
Not to be outdone, “Left Alone” evokes Miles Davis’ days on the Prestige record label with its lightning-quick backbone. The track sounds as though everybody involved is scattering through an open field, essentially coming as close to fusion as Project Natale may get without ever losing that hard bop feel.
“Endangered Liberties” falters only when the group searches for structure. “Vanish,” the epic final track that runs nearly 23 minutes, flashes back and forth between pop balladry and swing, with the former outweighing the latter. Such a move would be accepted when considering a lower-level talent. But when the song is held up to the glowing pieces of composition that surround the song, one has to question the reasoning behind putting such a cookie-cutter effort onto an otherwise exceptional release.
In the end, though, all is forgiven. Because Project Natale prove themselves to be a cut above the rest on “Endangered Liberties.” It takes a whole lot of talent to attempt a career in jazz music and it takes even more talent to actually succeed in doing so. The four individuals who make up this quartet clearly have a handle on how to excel at this particular complicated, often impossible and always expanding genre of music.
With “Endangered Liberties,” Project Natale don’t need the question of if they can pull off great songwriting while being relegated as a mere local act. Nope. In fact, the only question left is how much longer the word “local” will be needed when describing these four fine musicians moving forward.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***