Vibraphonist Jalen Baker offers seasoned reflections on his sophomore enterprise Be Still, due out on July 7 via Cellar Music Group
Cellar Music Group is pleased to announce the July 7, 2023 release of Be Still, the latest album from ascendant vibraphonist Jalen Baker. Following a few years of shifting perspectives, Be Still finds the vibraphonist in a contemplative mood alongside frequent collaborators: pianist Paul Cornish, bassist Gabriel Godoy and drummer Gavin Moolchan. Since uniting in 2019, the four have enjoyed a seamless unity, citing their varied Houston heritages as a binding agent. Fittingly, the album is a collection of vignettes, mainly speaking to the “now” of Baker’s life while touching on some of his formative “then” influences. In the bandleader’s words, he is “looking back, but moving forward.”
Baker is a strong, authentic voice in jazz vibraphone, building on the legacies of Stefon Harris, Warren Wolf and Joe Locke, while twisting the instrument’s idiosyncrasies to fit with his burgeoning musical personality. His debut album, This Is Me, This Is Us (produced by mentor Ulysses Owens Jr., and praised for the “faultless execution” by Jazz Journal) dropped on Outside in Music in September 2021, and wove themes of spirituality, trauma and political action into a cohesive, tightly-wrapped whole.
But the period following his debut release was far from cohesive for Baker. He had coincidentally moved back to Houston a few months prior to the Covid outbreak, and the pandemic elongated his stay. After returning for the first time in seven years, he found a sense of grounding and purpose in his hometown — something he attributes to being surrounded by family. All this change would shift his mindset on how to balance his life and career. “I think my perspective on a lot of things has changed as far as what’s important. A lot of the music on the album mirrors that,” he says. “I found a willingness to accept changes as they come and just embrace them.”
“As the pandemic has shown us, you can do all of this planning years in advance,” Baker continues, “but at the end of the day, you just have to trust the universe or whatever higher power you believe in is ultimately the deciding factor.” That combination of spirituality and belief in a higher power both stem from Baker’s upbringing in the church. Long before he would study in Chicago and eventually cut his teeth in New York (appearing with Ulysses Owens Jr. and Jeremy Pelt), Baker spent his formative years as a musician in the Baptist church. “Playing in a church is a school of itself,” he says.
The “be still” mantra is a complicated one, more to do with letting life take its course over searching for a literal stillness. Baker immerses us into that complexity through the first two tracks “T’Was” (a forward-facing rocker, with a big, percussion-led climax) and “Be Still” (clattering, lively, with the distinctive chimes of Baker ringing through and rattling past at speed). “These tracks come at a whirlwind,” Baker says, but there’s still time to introduce some key themes: “Looking back, but moving forward,” with regard to Baker’s grounding in the history of his elders, the presence of what he dubs “church-y harmony,” and a guiding philosophy — “accepting ideas, and adjusting accordingly.”
The dreamy yet intriguingly angled ballad “Lexi’s Lullaby” cools the pace, written for a younger cousin, who would toddle around Baker’s house while her parents would work from home. “That was pretty inspiring to me,” Baker recalls. “The way they just kind of float through life without a care in the world, as there was this catastrophic world meltdown going on.”
“Herzog” a Bobby Hutcherson tune, is one of a handful on the album that Baker would include as a waymarker showing how far he’d come from the inspirational tunes of his youth. “Jinrikisha” from Joe Henderson’s breakout Blue Note leader debut Page One (which translates as ‘rickshaw’ in Japanese), is another vehicle for Baker and the quartet to show their progress as a unit. The two arrangements pay homage to some of Baker’s greatest jazz influences while also serving as vehicles for impressive soloing.
“There’s Beauty In Fear,” a cinematic, bustling wave of ensemble sound, flows from the pen of Baker. It’s another philosophically-sculpted track. “I thought, if this is scaring me so much, this is probably something that I just need to attack, like full force,” he says of ongoing challenges in his life around work, art, and surviving as a jazz musician. He continues the metaphorical orientation on the nimbly polyrhythmic “The Light”, which was originally commissioned for an exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston about lighting configurations. “My first thought as it pertains to light was hope.. like running towards the light at the end of the tunnel.” In effect, the composition is optimistic by design, enhancing the emotional charge of the record. He signs off with a classically inventive take on “Body and Soul,” playing in adagio as perhaps another metaphoric statement, reminding us to seize those slow and stately moments, too.
- T’was (6:14)
- Be Still (6:35)
- Lexi’s Lullaby (5:28)
- Herzog (5:16)
- Jinirikisha (5:09)
- There’s Beauty In Fear (8:48)
- The Light (6:32)
- Body and Soul (5:57)