An intriguing element of Michael Feinberg’s superb Criss Cross debut is that the leader could easily have titled it “Bassist In The Background” (Fans of Duke Ellington’s wonderful 1960 LP Pianist In The Background will know what I mean.) Throughout the ten selections that comprise Blues Variant (which include six tunefully percolating originals by Feinberg, one by tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger, one by pianist Leo Genovese, and an ingenious Feinberg arrangement of Herbie Hancock’s “Eye Of The Hurricane”), the 35-year-old bass maestro hews to the mantra, “If you want to hear me solo, come to a gig, where I often play a solo on every tune.”
“I’m serving the music,” Feinberg continues. “What I appreciate about a bass player is how they make the other people in the band sound. I love hearing the soloistic abilities of Christian McBride, John Patitucci, Dave Holland and the people I idolize, but they’re amazing because, when they play, it feels incredible and they push their bandmates to be the best versions of themselves or go beyond what they think they can do.” As another example, Feinberg mentions Jimmy Garrison, who triangulated between McCoy Tyner and Elvin Jones with the “spiritually transcendent” John Coltrane Quartet between 1961 and 1965. “He rarely plays a solo, but you don’t get the Coltrane quartet with anyone else. So I don’t care about the solos, or being on top of the mix to indicate ‘this is a bass player’s record.’ I play a ton of notes. I’m playing the whole time. Can’t miss it.”
Feinberg’s remarks on the Garrison effect carry a certain gravitas; since the early 2010s, when he did The Elvin Jones Project, he’s delved into Coltrane’s repertoire on its own terms of engagement on numerous gigs, most of them featuring Preminger playing tenor saxophone and Ian Frohman on drums. On the pan-stylistic Blues Variant, he connects with the spirit of the great drum griot via the presence on three intense selections of Elvin alumnus Dave Liebman, Preminger’s teacher during student years who has often employed Frohman. Feinberg’s introduction to Liebman’s singular sound was Earth Jones, a 1982 Elvin-led release with Liebman, trumpeter Terumaso Hino, pianist Kenny Kirkland and bassist George Mraz. “I know every note of it,” Feinberg says. “I’ve been a fan of Dave’s playing for a long time.”
An earlier Liebman-Preminger pairing is on Feinberg’s 2020 Steeplechase date, From Where We Came, which transpired not long after they met. The occasion was a Manhattan restaurant gig, where the septuagenarian saxophonist was dining with his daughter, rising-star publicist Lydia Liebman, who introduced them at set break. “I got his contact info, told him I was playing at Smalls the next month, and said, ‘If you want to play, there’s a gig for you,” Feinberg recounts. “Dave accepted. That began a beautiful relationship.”
In seizing the moment to align with Liebman, Feinberg was following a life-long predisposition to “create opportunities for myself – my hustler’s spirit; I’m always getting the wheels going, busy and active, trying to keep new, exciting things going on.” It’s an attribute he shares with Preminger, himself a two-time Criss Cross leader, a close friend since both moved to New York towards the end of 2000s. “I often have Noah in my mind’s ear because I know he’ll bring the right energy and treat the music with the proper respect,” Feinberg says. “He looks at music differently than most people. He’s one of the most technically virtuosic saxophonists – and that’s the least impressive thing about what he does. What really makes me feel his presence is the way he uses rhythm as a melody instrument in his playing, his long, slow phrases – and how he weaves theme and variation throughout a solo.”
The Feinberg-Genovese relationship is similarly long standing. “Leo is one my favorite musicians, a real artist, no ego,” Feinberg says. “He’s incredibly well-versed – he travels everywhere, soaks up cultural musical language, and performs with some of the best musicians from all over the world, playing regional ethnic music in their bands. He grew up in the countryside of Argentina and now he plays with Wayne Shorter. He’s like a shaman. He’s free, effortless in expressing himself in all times, in all situations.”
The corollary of Feinberg’s functional, groove-centric approach is a long-standing desire to play and record with such expansive drummers as Frohman, Billy Hart, Jeff “Tain” Watts, and – on Blues Variant – Nasheet Waits. “The drummer makes the band, always and forever, and picking the drummer is what the music is going to sound like,” he says. “With Nasheet, I appreciate the timbre, the sound he gets from the drums. He can bring out heavy and bring out light, and plays all my really hard music in ways that make it sound effortless.
“I’ve always been chasing Elvin – and Jack DeJohnette – sonically,” he adds. “Their ability to keep the foundational groove is always present, but also free, floating, melodic, compositional. You might think of Elvin as more like a bruiser than an artiste, but he brought forth to a magic feeling in the music like no else before or since – brushes, ballad; Afro-Latin, 12/8; swing, medium; down, up. However much he pushes and pulls the time, where it’s not really metric, BAM, he’s going to give you the one, which locks the whole thing. That’s what allows the ambiguity and contrast.”
Asked about his own time feel, Feinberg responds: “The music is alive, so it’s always changing. As long as the drummer and I are locked in, I can play on top of the beat or behind the beat – I know it won’t go to a bad place. But I don’t ever want to sit always in one place. The groove dictates the approach.”
Feinberg wrote most of the music contained herein during the pandemic with this personnel in mind, around the unifying concept of interrogating “the idea of what is the blues and presenting it in diverse, unique ways.” He first assimilated blues expression in his hometown, Atlanta, Georgia, where, by age 16, was playing professionally with such world-class practitioners as Russell Gunn and Bryan Hogans. His compositional endeavors began during freshman year at Frost Conservatory of Music in Miami, Florida, where – inspired by bassist-composer Ben Allison, and other contemporaneous New York “downtown” figures like Jim Black, Chris Speed, Chris Cheek, Andrew D’Angelo, Skuli Sverisson and the members of the Bad Plus – he organized Miami Creative Music Collective, which played original music by its members in monthly concerts.
“The idea of being a composer and having a band was popular amongst my peer group,” Feinberg says. “But I also played a lot of gigs – a blues band called Juke, Frank Sinatra night on South Beach with a crooner, different Latin gigs, endless jam sessions. I take the relationship with the audience seriously, not in a showman-performative way, but connecting with the general audience so they understand what you’re doing. Melodies, the feeling of blues and swing. A lot of great music is simple. What really inspires me artistically is contrast, and that comes across in all my music – contrast in styles, in instruments, in textures. Playing funk versus playing swing. Playing odd meters that feel like common time meters.”
As an instance of that last-stated juxtaposition, Feinberg cites the surging title track, which proceeds to an ostinato bassline in 13 that briefly transitions to swing at the end of the form. “The title ‘Blues Variant’ relates to the mutations of COVID-19, but also references theme-and-variations on the blues,” he says. “There’s a tonic, a subdominant and a dominant, and utilization of the blues scale and blues dominant chords, but it doesn’t sound like that to me – which is also part of the idea.” Genovese’s opening solo postulates fleet right-hand lines in counterpoint to a rollicking left-hand vamp with enviable independence.
On “Saqqara,” named for an ancient, historically important Egyptian village, Feinberg – whose maternal grandparents are Israeli – channels Middle Eastern roots. After a rubato intro, the flow transitions into an “exotic” refrain in 5/4, inspiring another scintillating Genovese solo. Waits seamlessly metric-modulates to brisk swing, propelling Preminger through a few choruses that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in the Hollywood epic Exodus, directed by Otto Preminger, his distant relative.
Genovese plugs in on Preminger’s “High or Booze” (rhymes with “minor blues”) which the saxophonist performed on his own 2022 Criss Cross release, Sky Continuous. “I got the idea for the project – non-traditional blues-based music – playing this tune on a gig with Noah and Nasheet,” Feinberg says. “It’s not an easy song.” Perhaps so, but the degree of difficulty isn’t discernible on this kinetic, elegant track, highlighted by the composer’s far-flung solo, Genovese’s texturally acute percussive comping; the leader’s angular bassline; and Waits’s force-of-nature drumming.
Waits’ funky backbeat underpins Feinberg’s “Healing Power of GRITS,” signifying not only the soul food staple grain, but also “Girls Raised In The South,” of whom his wife is one. “I wanted to do something in the spirit of Cannonball Adderley’s Mercy, Mercy, Mercy session or Ramsey Lewis – a groovy, ’60s-’70s soul jazz vibe,” Feinberg says. Again plugged in, Genovese elicits dark, kaleidoscopic Rhodes colors when soloing and when complementing Preminger’s declamation.
“I love playing the music of the tradition, but why play it the same way all the time?” says Feinberg of his metrically modulated treatment of “Eye Of The Hurricane,” provoking Liebman to uncork an effervescent, swinging soprano solo on the first of his three tracks. Genovese and Preminger follow suit.
Feinberg cites such ’70s-’80s Liebman waltz tunes as “Is Seeing Believing?’ as inspirating the ritualistic “The Water Spirit Brought Us, The Water Spirit Will Take Us Home.” After Feinberg’s well-wrought solo prelude, the ceremony continues with Liebman’s soaring soprano, Genovese’s mystically coruscating turn, and Preminger’s ascendant tenor statement, which channels Coltrane’s fire-in-stillness sound circa 1965-1966.
In response to Feinberg’s request for an unconventional blues, Genovese contributes the stately, spiky “Gather Power.” That sentiment seems to guide the solos – first Liebman, channeling Steve Lacy and Coltrane in his own argot; Genovese atonal, like Bley-meets McCoy, with crystalline touch; Preminger resolutely soulful; Waits incantationally Elvinistic.
After Feinberg’s spontaneously generated a cappella blues improvisation, poignant and honest, the recital continues with “vibey palate cleanser” – “Cycle Song,” a lovely melody based on a 4-bar loop. “This one really lets the musicians speak,” Feinberg says. “Again, it’s making something seemingly complex as simple as possible, making it easy to understand what we’re doing and feel the music.” Preminger’s tenor statement is a master class in melodic interpretation; Feinberg showcases his guitaristic electric bass conception; Genovese dances via on the Rhodes.
For dessert, Feinberg presents the set-closing “Year Of The Ox,” “a hyperactive, topsy-turvy explosion” that he wrote on Chinese New Year’s Day in 2020. Waits’s fresh, surging cascaras fuel apropos solos from each protagonist.
It’s a fitting wrap to a well-integrated musical banquet that fulfills Feinberg’s self-descriptive aesthetic mantra: “There’s a place for everything. But a lot of the greatest music – Kind of Blue, Weather Report, Oscar Peterson – is simple while also being incredibly sophisticated. It all comes down to authenticity.”
— Blues Variant liner notes by Ted Panken