After paying his dues, but absorbing all that he can from invaluable experiences, with Charles Earland, Freddie Hubbard, Jimmy Cobb and other jazz leaders after moving to New York, tenor saxophonist Todd Herbert is striking out on his own again with the release of The Tree of Life.
Don’t let the album’s title lead you to preconceptions. Frankly, I don’t know what the title means, even after hearing Herbert’s quartet perform it as the fifth track on the CD. While The Tree of Life
may follow some thematic path, known mostly to Herbert, it does not imply anything New Age-ish or pedantic or even familial. Rather, Herbert’s compositions should be enjoyed on its own terms without references to titles or themes or extra-musical references.
If anything, Herbert’s music receives strong influence from other spiritually based tenor saxophonists, particularly John Coltrane, as Herbert admits, and Charles Lloyd. Indeed, sometimes The Tree of Life
sounds as if it had been recorded on Atlantic or Impulse!, for it is entirely consistent with some of those labels recordings of forty years ago. After Herbert heard Coltrane’s Live at Birdland,
he was never the same again and the spirituality of Coltrane infused Herbert’s playing, if not possibly his soul. And so, it goes without saying that Herbert’s playing is passionate and that he submerges his being into it; that much comes across even from the playing of a CD.
However, Herbert’s sidemen make the recording even more distinguished. Not only are they people that Herbert has known, but also equally exciting musicians who advance the excitement of the performances. "Look into the Abyss," the first track, provides an effective glimpse into the music to follow, with streaming improvisation over the minor-key changes before pianist Anthony Wonsey, bassist Dwayne Burno and drummer Jason Brown add their own personal stamps to the piece, ever rising in intensity. Still Herbert’s depth of feeling comes through from beginning to end, even on the slower numbers like "Maharishi" or "Years of Dreaming." With ever-present attention to tone, Herbert enlivens the long tones of "Years of Dreaming," and beauty emerges as he softly ends a chorus before a repeat, similar to Coltrane’s "Nancy with the Smiling Face" from Ballads.
His upper-register work is as appealing, drawing in the listener, as much as his mid-range frenzy does on "Herbs of Healing," an up-tempo burner with Herbert’s oblique skirting around the chords. But then after a half minute, Burno tears up "Herbs of Healing" with his aggressive, will-not-be-denied soloing before Wonsey takes flight too, ending the CD as strongly as they began it with "Look into the Abyss." The Charles Lloyd influences comes through on "Maharishi," Herbert once again attaining emotional connection through long tones shaped and swelling with the spiritual intent.
At a time when much of the music being released is the result of instruction and strict attention to technique, with the feel for the music minimized, at least Todd Herbert, though still showing obvious influence by some of the tenor sax innovators, immerses himself entirely into his music. Listeners who search for that intensity can still find it without replaying some of those Atlantic albums.