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Every week on the air there's a special focus on one particular jazz album. Check them all out here!

Jazz Album of the Week: Ken Fowser’s Morning Light Is Straight-Forward Sophistication

April 27, 2020. For a youngish tenor saxophonist, Ken Fowser’s recording output’s been nothing short of prodigious, leading five albums for Posi-Tone Records and co-leading another four with star vibraphonist Behn Gillece. His latest, Morning Light, is further support for the rock-solid reputation the South Jersey native has built since hitting the New York City scene 15 years ago.

In that time, Fowser’s become known as a straight-ahead, no-nonsense type of jazzer. The affectations and esoteric pyrotechnics that accompany other young saxophonists’ presentation—not part of his repertoire. Fowser doesn’t deal in the cosmic; he’s decidedly earth-bound. But though Fowser’s style might be considered old-school in the sense that it’s melodic and harmonically conventional, his treatments bring a contemporary sensibility to familiar forms.

Fowser plus piano (Tadataka Unno), bass (Vince Dupont), drums (Joe Strasser) and trumpet (Josh Bruneau) makes five. The quintet is Fowser’s favored configuration, as it was for Miles Davis, who once briefly employed the tenorman, George Coleman, whom Fowser cites, along with Harold Mabern, as among his chief inspirations.

Nothing here is as revolutionary as the sessions produced by Miles’ quintets, but it doesn’t need to be.

There’s nothing forced or heavy-handed about Morning Light, just calmly composed tunes that are accessible to the casual listener and communicate their elegance and audacity through the precision of the musicianship.

The first track, “Moving Forward,” offers a perfect illustration of the type of disciplined, precise playing that permeates the entire recording. After the fog of the dreamlike prologue recedes, we’re left with the starkness of a new day made manifest by Fowser and trumpeter Josh Bruneau stating and then restating the tune’s theme in unison.

Fowser and Bruneau play in unison on several cuts, and while each time they eventually break off into harmony, it’s the unison playing—and the heightened discipline such playing requires in terms of pitch, tone, articulation and dynamics—that bespeaks high-level musicianship.

The next tune, as its title “Three for Leathers” suggests, is played in three and again features Bruneau and Fowser playing much of the head in unison. This time, pianist Tadatako Unno, who was the last to solo on the opener, is the first to hop out front. Of all, Unno is perhaps the most delightful surprise; over the course of the album, he makes a compelling case for the title of most dynamic improvisor.

Morning Light is at its most audacious with the cleverly titled “Seventy Sixers,” which seems to be a nod both to Fowser’s hometown professional basketball franchise as well as the tune’s non-standard time signature. Solos from Fowser and Bruneau are their edgiest and most playful, and if you listen closely to Unno’s solo, you can almost hear him delighting in his clever quotation of “Undecided” — if you blink your ears, you’ll miss it.

Three Latin grooves — “This, That & the Other,” “That Was Then,” and “Without Saying” — infuse the heart of the album with energy and ensure none of the momentum earned early on goes to waste. “That Was Then” elicits a warmth from Fowser’s tenor that isn’t duplicated elsewhere, and the arrangement — reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Like Sonny” — is the perfect vehicle for a Bruneau solo so cool it might grant him temporary license to wear a Panama hat free of irony.

Though not given much time out front, bassist Vince Dupont is the glue holding everything together and is especially prominent in stretches highlighting just the rhythm section.

Meanwhile, drummer Joe Strasser, a veteran of the New York City scene and frequent collaborator with Fowser, is rocksteady behind the kit. And while he provides mostly foundational support, he’s featured more toward the end of the album on “The Instigator” and, then again, in the latter portion of the album’s closer, “Vitamin E.” It’s there where he memorably trades fours with Bruneau and Fowser, playing once more in unison, to close things out.

Matt Silver is a journalist, commentator, and storyteller who’s been enamored with the concept of performance since his grandparents told him as a toddler that singing "Sunrise, Sunset" in rooms full of strangers was the cool thing to do.