WBGO Radar

Nir Naaman: Independence

saxophonist nir naaman

For saxophonist Nir Naaman, jazz is a mansion with many rooms, and he sounds at home in all of them. His CD Independence is a mature debut, with an assured tone all his own.

“When Nir plays, you know he means every note,” says pianist George Cables, who plays on and produced the album. “Nir is anything but a one-dimensional musician.”

Like Anat Cohen, Omer Avital and other young Israelis on the New York jazz scene, Naaman got his start at Tel Aviv’s Thelma Yellin high school, which led to a scholarship at the Berklee College Of Music in 2004, then to Purchase College and now the New England Conservatory. In 2010, he was a Betty Carter fellow at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

By the sound of things, Naaman has made the most of these opportunities – by listening closely to, and absorbing the best lessons from teachers like Cables and trombonist Curtis Fuller – who he both met through the Kennedy Center – and saxophonist Steve Wilson, his teacher at Purchase.

Working closely with mentors on a variety of instruments has helped Naaman develop the maturity in the compositions and sound we hear on Independence, which frequently rises above the saxophone’s well-worn truths.

Part of this maturity is in knowing how to enable the talents of others to shine. Naaman’s companions on this journey – pianists Cables and Roy Assaf, trumpeter Marcus Printup, Dezron Douglas on bass and drummers Gregory Hutchinson and Ulysses Owens – sound happy and inspired to give as good as they get on the album.

Naaman’s Coltrane-inspired “Dream” offers inspired interaction with Assaf, and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is a fine duet with Cables, who shines again on the uptempo “Dilemma.”

Naaman’s adaptation of “Eshal Elohai,” a seventeenth-century Yemenite melody now popular as an Israeli folk song, shows his ability to create convincing jazz from unexpected materials.

The album starts in the blues, takes us through ballads and layered hard-bop to the desert, then ends up in in the Crescent City for a “New Orleans Twist.” All of these stops sound organic and fully owned.

Naaman’s ease, variety and versatility make Independence an inspired debut for him, not only as a saxophonist but also as a bandleader, which inspires confidence that his journey through jazz will be long and bear many fruits, of which these are just the first.

  - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content manager

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