. issue II : v .
When describing a jazz piece to someone, it is easy to fall into false and meaningless comparisons: “Oh, he sounds just like Miles,” or, “That line could’ve come out of Clifford Brown’s horn,” and ad infinitum. These descriptions do no one any good and often diminish the valuable contributions of the artist in question. However, the genre doesn’t prepare to avoid this type of discussion–that is, jazz has become a fan’s genre. The many stylistic tools and innovations that jazz has contributed to music over the course of the last century have been absorbed, processed, and reinterpreted by the practitioners of just about every genre out there, yet traditional forms of jazz have been, to the casual listener, ‘in stasis’ for the past few decades. Without engaging in some deep crate digging, it can be difficult for the average consumer to find an example of jazz that is easily distinguishable from the output of the 1960’s and 70’s. For those who enjoy this genre, it doesn’t much matter that jazz music has not undergone the stylistic facelifts that pop music experiences every several years; it is enough that talented musicians still play, produce, and provide composed and improvisational pieces of high quality (even in the traditional vein). Similarly, no underground hip-hop fan complains when a contemporary mixtape sounds like a 90’s throwback. But–enough talking around the issue–let’s talk about Victor Haskins’ album The Truth.
Victor is the star product of VCU’s Jazz Studies program and a frequent live presence around Richmond. He has a semi-regular gig at Bogart’s on Cary Street, so there is really no excuse to not hear him play in person…but if you can’t make it out of the house on a Wednesday evening, Haskins has recently released his debut: The Truth (2013). Despite a perhaps grandiose title, this seven-song endeavor contains wonderful moments of jazz composition and musicianship. The Victor Haskins Group manages to avoid repeating old standards, instead offering solid performances of several original pieces.
The opening song, “Smiling With the Sun,” manages to move through a range of emotional territory while keeping things generally upbeat. By featuring nearly inaudible keyboard undertones, Victor makes it clear that The Truth is not a 1950’s rehash, as he’s willing to utilize instrumentation (e.g. synth) shunned by certain traditionalist camps. “Smiling” also wastes no time in putting Victor’s prodigious talent with his trumpet on display–this and subsequent solos do not disappoint! He expertly stretches out his opening notes, moving into a melodic verse with alto saxophonist Luis Hernandez while the rhythm section works around the horn duo.
“The album’s second track (‘The Thought That Counts’) should have been recorded a few decades previous! Had it been so lucky, 90’s boom bap producers would have sampled the aggressive opening bass to the point of fame. While the later sections of ‘Thought’ choose not to display the edginess that the Haskins Group offers elsewhere, some of these trumpet lines are positively untouchable.”
Two standout tracks, “Winter Winds” and “Morning,” form the centerpiece of The Truth. “Winds” establishes the best-realized melodies on The Truth and features the most satisfying solo exchanges: though the piano work throughout the album is wonderful, Steve Kessler really outdoes himself here, and the inter-solo conversations between Haskins and Hernandez are similarly gratifying. The impressive “Morning” is Victor’s contribution to the catalog of instrumental jazz ballads, reminding listeners that although fiery and rapid songs are exciting, staying on-beat and conveying heavy emotion can be as (or more) difficult than ejecting a quick succession of notes. “Stasis” (bookended by “Winds” and “Morning”) is anything but static; it’s a fast-paced piece that any bop fan will get behind.
The album closes out with “Grey,” a somber track that leaves the listener calm and contemplative. And though bassist Tom Baldwin has spent most of the album fulfilling his foundational, supportive role and allowing other musicians to shine, his bass line takes center stage on “Grey.”
All told, the whole album flows well and features enough mood and stylistic changeups to keep even the casual jazz fan listening, especially as The Truth is Victor’s first formal offering–and the guy is still a student! It will be fun to watch this local character develop. Further, Victor is elevating his engagement with the local community by providing a good bit of music education, thus helping to insure the continued life and vigor of the jazz genre. Since the accessible and yet laudable jazz of the Victor Haskins Group isn’t just for aficionados, I’ll reiterate that he is still booked for regular appearances at Bogart’s. Why not go see him live?