Born in Kansas City, Richardson left at 19 to study at the Berklee College of Music before moving to the New School in New York, an establishment with a strong reputation having developed the talents of Robert Glasper, Brad Mehldau, Bilal, Florian Pellissier and Marcus Strickland, to name but a few. Since graduating Richardson has performed as both leader, with his group Shift, and sideman, with the likes of the drummer Nasheet Waits and pianist Jason Moran. Both of these return the favour on this, Richardson’s third album.
Jason Moran’s participation alone is probably enough to garner significant interest amongst the jazz fraternity, but Pat Metheny’s involvement ensures that this reaches a broad audience.
Pat’s brother Mike introduced the pair to each other; when Richardson first tentatively posited the idea of collaboration it was with the hope that Metheny might appear on a few tracks. However, his enthusiasm for the project was such that he wanted to be part of the whole process rather than just a musician for hire.
Having such established players, jazz royalty in the case of Metheny, on board can have its pro’s and cons, but it’s to their credit that all are involved from start to finish, bringing as it does a cohesive musical vision.
The release was originally due to come out last year on Concord Jazz, the label Richardson was signed to at the time, but when that relationship ended the album was brought to Blue Note, originally getting a release in Japan in September 2015 before worldwide distribution this year.
So does Richardson cut it in such exalted company? Overall I think so. First up he is confident enough in his narratives to allow these more established names to express themselves within the group context. Most of the compositions build around a melodic theme that is expanded upon through a mixture of soloing, call and response, simultaneous playing or supportive accompaniment. Richardson and Metheny’s individual styles compliment each other well. For me, Richardson’s sound mirrors that of a guitar at times, with lots of long notes, emphasized by a little echo here and there. Both have an emotive, intense expression about them, particularly during expansive solos such as on tracks like “Mind Free” and “Slow”. The former stands out for me as the highlight of the album.
The one track Richardson did not write is “Locked out of Heaven”, a Bruno Mars song. Richardson’s mournful saxophone replaces Mars’ vocals, surrounded by plenty of effects and reverb. The tune isn’t instantly recognisable until the chorus and once you get the reference it’s a bit like playing a single at 33 1/3 instead of 44 RPM. The impact is to take an upbeat, up-tempo pop song and create a dense, epic piece jazz-rock.
I don’t get the point of the two short pieces, “When I wake” and “In between”, other than as respites between some fairly forceful playing, but this is a minor criticism.
Blue Note is building a notable roster of progressive talents together with the more established names. Only time will tell whether this album is seen as an adjunct to the extensive Metheny canon or the starting point of Richardson’s notable body of work, but in the here and now there is plenty to enjoy on “Shift”.