Altoizm Flies High in Chicago


Altoizm is Greg Ward, Sharel Cassity and Rajiv Halim.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

As the track and field Olympics played out in a stadium full of robots in Tokyo, the alto sax olympics convened for a live audience at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. Under the banner “Altoizm,” alto saxophonists Greg Ward, Sharel Cassity and Rajiv Halim — frontrunners in a sextet anchored by pianist/producer Richard Johnson, bassist Jeremiah Hunt and drummer Michael Piolet — were celebrating the release of the first session from Johnson’s custom-built studio, The Jazz Place in Carpentersville, Illinois.

Altoizm was having such a fine time during its residency at the Showcase, the group elected to record there, too. For the final Sunday set, Ward announced, “We’re gonna bring the fire to ya,” and he wasn’t kidding. As if lives depended on it, the band launched into the asymmetrical pulse of “Last Minute,” a theme Johnson conceived as an urgent epilogue to mentor Mulgrew Miller’s blues “Eleventh Hour.”

Heretofore, the group’s front line had been tempered in their fleet, virtuosic improvisations, but Ward (an avid runner outside of jazz) suddenly veered off-track, opting for texture and spiraling altissimo rasp, rather than intricate, inner-gear lines. Cassity and Halim quickly mirrored, generating tremendous excitement with call-and-response phraseology. Earlier it had been Cassity calling it, with audacious false-fingered forays on Dexter Gordon’s “Society Red,” parried by Ward with contrasting subtones. Other highlights included a swaggering take on “Wabash,” during which the ensemble robustly blended like a big band. Each saxophonist shone with a choice ballad: Halim rhapsodizing “Skylark” into seamless segue with Ward’s bluesy “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered,” capped by Cassity’s sumptuous “Chelsea Bridge.”

During a break the trio answered a question about what precedents there were for the triple-alto concept.

“Vincent Herring, Phil Woods and Antonio Hart,” brought up Johnson.

“Gary Bartz, Vincent Herring and Bobby Watson,” said Halim.

“I recall Jackie McLean and Phil Woods, both students of Bird, playing together,” Cassity added. It was she and Halim who first synched on a gig with Johnson and discussed practicing together. “When we talked about an alto group, we all thought of Greg Ward,” said the burly Halim, youngest of the three, who regards Ward and Cassity as mentors, but matches them note-for-note on the bandstand.

Each saxophonist is an accomplished composer, with high-level curatorial consciousness. Halim contributed “Bébé’s Kids” to the band book, a conflation on the Afro-Cuban 6/8 rhythm and the title of an animated movie from the ’90s about a group of renegade latchkey kids.

“The haphazard lifestyle of those cartoon characters recalled the environment around which every style of American music has developed,” reflected Halim, “referring to the social, political, economic fight most Black people went through in this country for hundreds of years, definitely since the beginning of jazz.”

Cassity’s compositions have dual conceits, also. “Cedar Grove” (misspelled as “Groove” on the CD) connects with formative influences Cedar Walton and Roy Hargrove, and is a contrafact over Walton’s “Fantasy In D (Ugetsu).” Her punchy “Thoroughbred” is a fresh line on Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” penned for her race-ready confrères.

But what of Ward’s tantalizing “The Mighty Mayfly Of Truth,” which hung over a piano ostinato before bursting into a flurry of activity? “The mayfly only lives for a day,” Ward smiled. “It has a lot to get done and all this power to unleash in a short space of time. It’s about being authentic, not faking it. The challenge in the ranks of Altoizm is to retain an individual voice, yet classily fuse the written music. Each does a superb job there, and they play like this is their sole mayfly day.” DB

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