Textura reviews Thomas Heflin: Morning Star

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by Ron Schepper

Thomas Heflin: Morning Star
Blue Canoe Records

Thomas Heflin has grounded his latest Blue Canoe Records album, his fourth for the label since 2007’s Symmetry debut, in a fresh concept. In fashioning Morning Star as a late-night radio show comprising DJ flow by announcer Bee-DadiKul (Brandon Robertson) and ensemble performances, the Tennessee-born trumpeter has produced a dynamic and stimulating set. Recorded between February and July 2021, Morning Star enhances the sound of a traditional jazz outfit with Fender Rhodes, Hammond organ, percussion, strings, and woodwinds to achieve the expansive warmth of a classic ‘70s recording. Though Heflin produced the album, there are moments where it’d be easy to picture CTI founder Creed Taylor doing the honours.

Functioning like classical motives, elements from the title track pop up throughout the recording to establish a running thread. Heflin deliberately chose the title, which refers to the last star seen at night before the new day comes, to symbolize the hope and optimism he believes is so desperately needed in these pandemic times; that spirit’s also conveyed in the encouraging words Robertson sprinkles throughout the album. Of course also lending the album cohesiveness is Heflin’s trumpet playing, which is unerringly assured, fluid, and bright.

His versatility and fluency on the horn comes from years of study and performance practice. He’s played with many a musician and from 2009 to 2014 performed with a variety of groups during a NYC stint; he’s also recorded five albums with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra and toured Europe with the ensemble. On the academic side, Heflin earned his doctorate in Music Performance (Jazz Emphasis) at the University of Texas and has taught at many institutions. A man of many talents, Heflin’s also a skilled Graphic Designer, as the package design for this release and others attest.

You’ll find Morning Star categorized as modern jazz, yet while Heflin and company do exemplify jazz chops in their playing, the songs’ grooves are more funk and hip-hop than standard swing, and tonally the material pushes beyond jazz into soul, R&B, and gospel. Joining Heflin are keyboardist Peter Stoltzman, guitarist Aaron Matson, and on woodwinds, Gregory Tardy (tenor and soprano saxes, bass clarinet) and (on two tracks) Dan Hitchcock (tenor sax, bass clarinet), plus bassist Steve Haines, drummer Xavier Ware, and percussionist Jorge Luis Torres “Papiosco.”

The album’s street vibe declares itself early in “Radio Intro” when a Dilla-time beat and the DJ’s words pave the way for the radiant sparkle of the title track. Velvety woodwinds and electric piano combine with a sultry groove to set the stage for funky solo turns and muscular ensemble playing. For more of that sultry sound, check out “Evensong,” a smooth, soaring statement highlighted by a fleet solo from Tardy; “Interlude,” on the other hand, sees a trio-backed Heflin delving into downtempo hip-hop. Morning Star is at its jazziest on “Haiku,” a Heflin tune that, based on the chord changes from Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” glides like the smoothest of tropical breezes. With Ariel Pocock adding wordless vocalizing to its lustrous textures, “The Moon Singer” qualifies as the album’s most atmospheric number, while the ballad “Anna Breschine,” titled after Heflin’s daughter, is naturally pretty and heartfelt.

The album’s sole non-original is “Self-Esteem,” an inspirational gospel-inflected tune by the late pianist James Williams and featuring Mavis “Swan” Poole singing words by Pamela Baskin Watson. Without question Poole adds another striking colour to the album, though I’ll confess my preference is for a vocal delivery with a little less embellishment and lyrics less trite, as well-intentioned as they are (“You can change your world if you try … Chase your dreams, you’ve got to believe you can if you try …”). Instrumentally, however, the song receives a stellar and soulful reading, and said complaints are of minor import when there’s otherwise much to admire. The level of musicianship impresses from the always-inspired front-liners to the powerful rhythm section. Ware deserves mention for his endless invention, and Tardy’s authoritative playing’s a constant source of pleasure too. It’s ultimately the leader’s bright horn, however, that gives the project its primary identity.

February 2022

Kari Gaffney

Kari Gaffney

Since 1988 Kari-On Productions has helped artists get an even footing in the industry through jazz promotion in the genres of Jazz, World & Latin Jazz through Jazz Radio and Publicity. Why do we do both, because they compliment each other, and we care about fiscal longevity for the artist.

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