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One could be forgiven, 30 seconds or so into the opening title track of Strunkin’, for thinking that Leigh Pilzer was saluting the late Gerry Mulligan. Pilzer plays Jeru’s instrument, the baritone sax; the somersaulting licks with which she begins are remarkably like his; and she’s backed by drums (Sherrie Maricle), bass (Amy Shook), and trombone (Jen Krupa)—one of the lineups Mulligan used in his famed piano-less quartets. (In particular, Maricle’s playful brushwork rings true to the “cool jazz” style that Mulligan pioneered.)
It’s a ruse. For one thing, Jackie Warren’s sly piano drops in just past that 30-second mark. But more importantly, Pilzer quickly lets her own voice on the bari shine through. Gruff and punchy, keeping to the low end, Pilzer’s got plenty to say—and says it throughout the record in growling epigrams. For that matter, her jazz isn’t terribly cool in temperament. Recorded live at this year’s Washington Women in Jazz Festival, Strunkin’ is straightforward and plenty melodic. But the playing styles of the individuals—and the swing they collectively build—are packed with fire and muscle, often deceptively so.
Take, for example, “It’s Anyone But You,” a Pilzer original rendered here as a samba. The rhythm section hints at the softness traditionally associated with that style, holding down the sprightly rhythm even as Pilzer trawls it like a gravel collector. But they gain steam as they proceed: Maricle’s drums and Warren’s piano gain a slight uptick in volume between the theme and Pilzer’s solo, move like a train by the third bari chorus (with some added thickness from the kick drum), and are straight barreling by the midpoint of Krupa’s solo. Likewise, “Blue Moo,” with a whimsical long-note tune and gliding waltz, suggests a ballad but has too much propulsion to actually be one. Krupa brings the aforementioned whimsy to her improvised melody, along with a touch of nostalgia, but tempers it with her inalienable power, and Warren, Shook, and Maricle follow gamely. Warren then adds a long solo that cannily balances lyrical subtleties with adrenaline bursts.
Not to say that subtlety is out of the question on Strunkin’: There is a legitimate ballad in “Miss Ally in Allyworld.” The composition itself (Pilzer’s) resembles Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady” a bit too closely, but the band interprets it with sensitivity and ingenuity. Indeed, Warren’s solo is her triumph on the album: light, delicate figures that bloom into robust ones. There’s also “Thaddish,” a spry little shuffle at the midpoint of the album. Swing is palpable throughout, but it’s softshoe swing, and if Shook’s bass has a somewhat incongruent brawn, it also doesn’t miss a lithestep. (Neither does Pilzer, but of course in her case the brawn is entirely expected).
Still, the real fun comes when such nuances are swept aside. “Look Before You Lerp” and “Duel at Dawn” are old-fashioned blowing sessions. The latter, closing the album, finally gives Krupa and Pilzer—longtime collaborators—the chance to interact, bebop style. They jab, thrust, parry, and cross; the winner? Your ears.