This one hits a particularly sentimental sweet spot for me. Back in my teens, a period when many readers of this site were likely idolizing the shredding guitarists of their choosing, I, a nebbish jazz nerd living the irl Whiplash life of competitive big bands, instead focused much of my attention on a “shredding” sax player: Walt Weiskopf. Although he’s been around for a few decades now and has garnered plenty of renown in the mainstream jazz world for his work, he is far from a household name outside of there (unless you’re a Steely Dan superfan and know their live band inside and out). For someone like me though at that time when how many notes per minute someone could fit into a solo was directly proportional with how good they were – Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” obviously being the pinnacle – Weiskopf’s blazing technique was utterly unimpeachable. More impressive, his solos were far more than simple runs up and down scales or series of arpeggios. They were complicated and knotty almost to a fault, constantly mixing in unpredictable intervallic steps and twists and turns that could remain lockstep in the complex chord progressions he constructed. Not only that, but he also proved himself to be a very compelling composer and arranger, especially in his large ensemble work through the 90s into 2000s (Song For My Mother, Siren, and Sight to Sound are still near-perfect classics in my eyes).
Over time I sort of lost track of Weiskopf’s work, though I would check in once in a while, even as much of his output over the past decade or so never quite captured the same magic I felt from that earlier work. His latest album, simply titled Walt Weiskopf European Quartet, changed that though. Perhaps it was the change of scenery and working with some new faces that rekindled something I felt had been missing for a bit, but the music present here, though not radically different from the bulk of his catalog (and featuring one re-recording of his own work as well as a standard in the timeless “Soul Eyes”), has a different edge and attitude to it. Opener “Kma” is a typical barn-burner, but in this no-frills quartet format, it feels meatier, more immediately propulsive and visceral. There’s also just a generally darker edge that flows throughout the album that speaks to me in a way that is difficult to describe, whether it’s the vaguely exotic lead melody of “Gates of Madrid,” solemn and exploratory “Wizard,” the utterly jagged “See the Pyramid,” and menacing “Darth.” The foundation hits a bit harder throughout, the bass thumping, piano slamming down its dense chords, and Weiskopf simply just letting it all fly, frequently on the knife’s edge of his tone.
For those who have a fondness of the labyrinthine post-bop work of the early to mid-60s of the likes of mid-career Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, and many others, European Quartet will fit in very neatly in that oeuvre while offering more than enough in the way of modern jazz edge to keep you engaged throughout.