By Brian Zimmerman | Published October 2017
From his post as lead alto saxophonist in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Sherman Irby has distinguished himself as an improviser of great artistry and wit. Drawing on the melodic language of Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman and others, he crafts solos that seem more geometric than linear, full of exquisite shapes that twist, rotate and shift through harmonic space. His latest project, out Oct. 20 on his own label, blends all those historical influences—as well as his own unique saxophone aesthetic—into a relentlessly engaging album. The CD features his Momentum ensemble—with JLCO trombonist Vincent Gardner, pianist Eric Reed, bassist Gerald Cannon and drummer Willie Jones III—as well as two additional guests from the JLCO, trombonist Elliot Mason and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. The group articulates Irby’s vision with imagination and aplomb, bringing to life the various saxophone legends whose iconic styles inform this disc: Adderley on the brawny “Racine,” Hank Crawford and Maceo Parker on the slow, smoke-infused “John Bishop Blues” and Gary Bartz and Sonny Fortune on straightahead swingers like “Blue Twirl: Portrait Of Sam Gillian.” The album also includes “SYBAD,” a touching homage to departed JLCO baritone saxophonist Joe Temperley (1927–2016). Joined by Marsalis, Irby casts the tune more as a celebration of life than a lament for a lost voice. The melody is reverent, with Marsalis and Irby trading ebullient phrases as if reminiscing about a dear friend. It’s a profound exchange with refreshing instance of candor and grace. And it’s hardly the only one. Moments like this abound on Cerulean Canvas, which is as much a dedication to the great saxophonists of yesteryear as it is an encapsulation of Irby’s forward-looking approach.