For his 2003 Milestone debut, Jim Snidero presented Strings, framing his resonant alto saxophone and flute with ten strings and a top-shelf rhythm section on an ambitious program of original music.
The jazz press celebrated Snidero’s achievement. In Jazziz, Zan Stewart described the album as a "dramatic, intense and compelling recording... a masterful blend of composition, arranging, orchestration and improvising, unquestionably demonstrating that Snidero is a protean musician.” Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press noted that Snidero’s "alto and flute soar through a variety of tempos, textures and rhythms that transcend soloist-plus-strings clichés in favor of a more organic approach... his expressive sound and the honesty of his conception carry the day.” Herb Wong noted "Snidero’s capacious skills,” "lustrous use of color,” and "beautiful and emotionally transcendent solos.” "Captivating,” declared Will Friedwald in an end-of-the-year wrap-up in the New York Sun, while C. Michael Bailey from All About Jazz wrote, "Sumptuous... one of the finest recordings of the year.”
Similar accolades ought to greet Close Up, Snidero’s stirring, elegant follow-up. Joined by an A-list quintet of midcareer New York individualists, the 46-year-old altoist explores his roots in hardcore jazz and finds fresh ways to articulate them. "As Snidero avoided the obvious in his strings project,” writes Doug Ramsey in the CD booklet notes, "he takes this music for quartet and quintet beyond the jam session mentality that assures so many small-group sessions of only momentary interest. In an area of music that is underused—in fact, largely undiscovered—by most jazz artists, he invests his work with dynamics” as well as "harmonic shape and texture.”
"I want to be as creative as possible,” Snidero says. "But I don’t think you ever can exhaust straight-ahead music. There are so many things that you can do just by changing a few notes, by changing phrasing, by changing octaves. I sense something missing in the shape of a line and the time feel of cats who haven’t gotten deeply into Bird and bebop. Basically, I want my music not to sound straight-ahead but still have that bebop attitude—a bit of abstraction and a bit of grease.”
That’s a good self-description for this beautifully balanced program, stamped with melodies that stick in the mind and containing enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. The leader satisfies his aesthetic desires with tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander (a fellow Milestone artist), pianist-arranger David Hazeltine, and Strings returnees Paul Gill and Billy Drummond on bass and drums.
Alexander appears on five tracks, all Snidero originals constructed to take full advantage of what Jim terms his "classic tenor sound” and "nuanced phrasing.” The title track is an insinuating "quasi-boogaloo” in D minor with a down-home feel, on which both saxmen contribute rousing solos. They do the same on "Reality,” a sweet modal tune with a triplet feel out of Atlantic-era Coltrane; on "Smash,” a twisty line with stops and starts and meaty changes; on "Blues for the Moment,” a B-flat burner on which Snidero inserts a four-measure bridge to discourage any tendencies towards complacency; and on "Nippon Blues,” an off-the-cuff slow drag inspired by Snidero’s experiences on the late-night Tokyo scene.
Snidero states that Hazeltine, a friend and collaborator for two decades, has influenced his arranging, a fact that’s evident on "Windswept,” a quartet tune with a sophisticated melody and a Latin feel. Here as on the entire proceedings, Hazeltine, like his early idol Bud Powell, more than matches the horns with a gorgeously articulated solo replete with flowing eighth notes. The pianist displays his own arranging wizardry on the Sammy Cahn standard "I Should Care,” doubling the bass and piano figures on the opening bars and changing the key from C to E-flat, following Snidero’s fleet, songlike solo with another tour de force.
First associated with Billy Eckstine and subsequently James Brown, among others, "Prisoner of Love” is Snidero’s own ballad feature. Deploying beautiful phrasing and manipulating tonal color, the altoist—who toured with Frank Sinatra from 1991 to 1995 and recorded on the Capitol album, Duets II—shows what he learned about "trying to find the meaning in a simple, simple melody.”
Close Up is Snidero’s twelfth recording. A teenage student of Phil Woods and a product of the jazz program at the University of North Texas in Denton, Snidero received postgraduate training with organist Jack McDuff in 1982-83. He sidemanned from 1983 to 2003 with the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band, played with Eddie Palmieri from 1994 to 1997 and with the Mingus Orchestra from 1999 to 2001, and has appeared as a sideman on albums by Hazeltine and pianist Mike LeDonne, tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf, and trumpeters Joe Magnarelli and Brian Lynch. Since the late Eighties, he’s led numerous ensembles featuring the top musicians of his peer group, and toured them extensively in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.
Jazz educators around the world know Snidero as the author of Jazz Conception and Easy Jazz Conception (Advance Music), a well-received series that combines jazz etudes for all the instruments, in appropriate keys, with play-along CDs featuring such virtuosi as trombonist Slide Hampton, flutist Frank Wess, and violinist Mark Feldman.
Only an artist possessing Snidero’s abundant knowledge and artistry, not to mention omnivorous curiosity, deep passion for music, and conviction that God is in the details, could successfully have undertaken such a project as the Jazz Conception books. Those qualities, and Snidero’s glorious sound, permeate every note of this superb release.