Jemal Ramirez
First Orbit Sounds Music 262

Drummer Jemal Ramirez has long loved the music of the classic Blue Note label and hard bop in general. On Pomponio, his first solo album, he leads a septet that, with its trumpet-sax frontline, is sometimes a bit reminiscent of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. However its repertoire is fresh and the band, with its inclusion of Warren Wolf on vibes and marimba and the Latin percussion of John Santos, has its own exciting musical personality.

In addition to Wolf and Santos, the group is filled with some of Northern California’s best jazz artists. Trumpeter Joel Behrman has a fiery style similar at times as Freddie Hubbard, adding a great deal of excitement to the set. Howard Wiley, heard on tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, has a driving style and muscular sounds that perfectly fit into this music. Pianist Matthew Clark is equally expert at hard bop and modal jazz, excelling as both a soloist and an accompanist. Bassist John Shifflett adds a strong forward momentum to the music. As for the leader, he is content to lead and inspire the soloists, adding color to the ensembles and keeping the music swinging.

The repertoire is full of high-quality songs that are rarely played; “But Beautiful” is the only standard. The pieces were written by such jazz greats as Bobby Hutcherson, Bobby Watson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Wayne Escoffery, Kenny Garrett and Donald Brown, with an original apiece contributed by Wolf and Behrman. The opening “Pomponio” is high-powered modern hard bop that is outfitted with infectious rhythms and has Wolf’s marimba making the piece sound brand new. “In Case You Missed It” has some particularly inventive trumpet, Shorter’s “Prince Of Darkness” (from the second great Miles Davis Quintet) has an excellent tenor-trumpet tradeoff, and Wolf’s “Back In The Swing Of Things” is a relaxed piece that the group embraces.

The Herbie Hancock ballad “Alone And I” has the horns sitting out while Wolf and pianist Clark interact closely with each other. “Citadel” includes some fine drum breaks from Ramirez along with hot solos by Wiley on tenor, Behrman, Wolf and Clark. “But Beautiful” is turned into a modern samba while Escoffery’s “Tell Me Why” has some outstanding soprano playing by Wiley, The joyful samba “J’Ouvert,” a lyrical “Waltz For Monk” and Behrman’s uptempo augmented blues “Lodi Huggins” conclude the enjoyable program.

Listeners who like modern straight ahead jazz will certainly enjoy this stirring set from Jemal Ramirez.

Scott Yanow, jazz journalist/historian and author of 11 books including The Great Jazz Guitarists, Bebop, Jazz On Film and Jazz On Record 1917-76

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