The Burning Alto Sax of Steven Garrison
This weekend I had my first encounter with a remarkably lyrical, bottomlessly soulful alto saxophonist right here in D.C., and his name is Steven Garrison.
He is a born-and-bred local, having gone to high school in Upper Marlboro and college at Bowie State, a current member of the Howard University Jazz Ensemble, and apparently quite well known among local musicians. And he is a monster, with a sound somehow both clear and abrasive, brittle and sticky, that actively repels vibrato while scraping every trace of blues out of the innards of the horn. This past Saturday at the National Portrait Gallery, he was used in a commissioned arrangement in which he channeled the great Hank Crawford by playing at the head of the 18-piece band (under the direction of Fred Irby III). He devoured the written melody whole, let off sparks during his solo, then sat leaning forward, with a serious, thoughtful visage, just listening (when not playing backgrounds).
Mike Crotty's arrangement of Stevie Wonder's "I Can't Help It" found him doubling down on his sound, balancing smooth soulful lyricism with breakneck bebop runs and funky R&B swagger across two separate solos. It was an approach to alto sax that made it inevitable that he would appear in the set's Ornette Coleman piece, "Ramblin'." He and alto mate Ashton Vines chased each other like tigers around a tree, spiraling ever further into free territory until they were subsumed by the entire ensemble. It was splendid.
There are some qualifications to this rave. Despite the blues aesthetic that soaks his playing, I have yet to hear Garrison attack an actual 12-bar blues form. Nor have I heard him approach a ballad or a Latin piece. He went (or was sent) straight to the barnburners with the HUJE and his attack was magnificent enough that I went right for the notebook.
His name, again, is Steven Garrison. You're going to hear it again before too long.
Photo by Michael J. West