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CD Review: Shawn Maxwell “Millstream”

By Hrayr Attarian

Shawn Maxwell Millstream

Shawn Maxwell – Alto and soprano saxophones

Collin Clauson – Rhodes, piano, and Wurlitzer

Jeremiah Hunt – Bass

Phil Beale – Drums

Chad McCullough – Flugelhorn (4), trumpet (8)

The taut and passionate Millstream is innovative saxophonist and composer Shawn Maxwell’s ninth title as a leader and, like most of its predecessors, it consists entirely of Maxwell's originals. On it, Maxwell returns to the relatively intimate setting of a quartet after a few recordings with larger ensembles. The electrifying music crackles with energy and intelligence as the cohesive group interprets the eleven short-ish compositions with virtuosity and sophistication.

The soulful “Ravage Eject” sets the mood for the album with its contemplative ambience and simmering cadence. Maxwell improvises in fiery and muscular lines leading up to keyboardist Collin Clauson’s turn in the spotlight. The latter contributes a series of dense and resonant spontaneous chords that are cool on the surface and fervent at their core.

Equally gripping is “We Salt Everything.” Bassist Jeremiah Hunt lays down a thumping groove that is endowed with a primal spirituality. Drummer Phil Beale joins him in propelling the restless and dynamic piece. Maxwell builds his solo with intricately interwoven hypnotic vamps and delightfully gritty, wailing phrases that seamlessly merge into the main theme leading to the wistful conclusion.

The most poignant of the tracks is the haunting “Tails Wins,” a melancholic duet between Beale and Maxwell. Lilting and lyrical saxophone extemporization is tinged with mournful sadness while Beale’s thundering kit gives the performance a somber urgency.

In contrast, a brighter atmosphere prevails on the expansive and languid “Elbow of Phyllis” that also features guest trumpeter Chad McCullough. Maxwell’s soaring soprano with its acerbic tones perfectly complements McCullough’s full-bodied and darkly hued flugelhorn. The rhythm trio’s swaggering refrains buoy the tune with lithe elegance as it coalesces around Maxwell’s stimulating extemporization.

Because of his superlative musicianship, there are high expectations inherent to each Maxwell release. Millstream not only does not disappoint, it defies these. With each work, Maxwell’s already unique style becomes even more singular as his sound matures and his writing crystalizes. As anticipated with any good art, Millstream is simultaneously enjoyable and satisfyingly provocative.

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