Release date: July 7, 2023
Label: Cellar Music Group
Be Still is the sophomore 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.
This is Me, This is Us
Release date: June 4, 2021
Label: Outside In Music
Vibraphonist, composer and bandleader Jalen Baker's new release, This Is Me, This Is Us is the artist's auspicious and gripping debut album via Outside In Music. The Houston-based talent makes a major musical statement with the help of star drummer and producer Ulysses Owens Jr. Over the course of nine original compositions, and one reimagined Stevie Wonder classic, Baker expertly fuses his lyrical improvisation with fervent passion and virtuosic ability to create an unforgettable sonic experience. Joining Baker is an amalgam of top-flight musicians from both Texas and New York including pianist Paul Cornish, trumpeter Giveton Gelin, drummer Gavin Moolchan and bassist Gabriel Godoy. The depth of the compositions is augmented by the stellar string quartet made up of violinist Jessica McJunkins, violinist Orlando Wells, violist Andrew Griffin, and cellist Susan Mandel.
On This is Me, This is Us, Baker presents deeply substantive original material centered around themes of spirituality, trauma and healing. “I wrote all of the music based on my life experiences with things such as racism, depression, heartbreak, career disappointments, success, triumph and healing. Even though I have personal experience with all of these things, nothing is unique to just me. These are things most of us deal with and I want people to know that they’re not alone.” The title, This Is Me, This Is Us, is meant to reflect these universal experiences. The album walks listeners through Baker’s musical upbringing, reflecting on the artist’s journey while making poignant statements about the many trials he’s faced.
This Is Me, This Is Us is produced by acclaimed drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. Baker’s relationship with acclaimed drummer Ulysses Owens Jr. Their relationship began with an encounter at a workshop that Owens Jr. was conducting at Florida A&M University. Owens was so impressed by Baker’s playing, that he made the young vibraphonist a sub for his own touring band. Thus, Baker and Owens have played together throughout the country and overseas, and have formed a long-standing musical connection that reaches its apex on This Is Me, This Is Us.
“I think Jalen’s voice on the vibraphone will be amplified by his compositions. He had a chance to spend a little free time with Billy Childs who recognized his compositional voice, and I think coupled with his amazing playing, Jalen’s compositional voice will be one that I feel will resonate and create a new generation of listeners,” says Owens.
Baker offered the following: “Having Ulysses produce this record means everything. He was one of the people to really take a chance on me and jump start my career. It was really important to me to have people from every point in my musical life a part of my first record so getting Ulysses to produce was a no brainer. When you work with someone like Ulysses the product will always be of the highest quality.”
Upon listening to the first track “So Help Me God”, listeners will hear Baker’s sultry vibes underscored by the lush sounds of the string quartet. Harkening back to the iconic sounds of the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring the great vibraphonist Milt Jackson, this track highlights Baker’s tremendous acuity at composing nuanced, ardent pieces. Masterfully arranged, the large ensemble avoids density and is complimentary in nature, the soaring refrains from Trumpeter Giveton Gelin doubled by Baker is underpinned by the steadfast rhythm section and cradled by the silken soundfield created by the strings.
“Healing” is an example of a thematic composition that draws the listener in with its refined dynamic sensibilities and harmonic intrigue. The piece was composed in the summer of 2020 while reflecting on the hardships of the current moment, most notably the pandemic that has afflicted our world for the past year. In order to make sense of the world, Baker strived to heal his mind with composition and practicing. This piece features solos from Baker, Giveton Gelin, and pianist Paul Cornish.
“Patience” is a poignant ballad that showcases the vibist’s maturity in composition by his use of space and affecting melodic content. The strings return, this time beginning the piece by stating the melody prior to the entrance of Baker and Gelin. In a true show of patience, the melody gently builds in both instrumentation and intensity. “Praise” is a decidedly modern sounding piece with a lyrical melody, and a prayerful air throughout, and features masterful solos by Cornish and Baker. The pared down “Faith” features Baker with bass and drum accompaniment, as the sole chordal player and displays the synergy between the three players, while spotlighting Baker’s comping prowess. Baker’s arrangement of Stevie Wonder’s “Love Is In Need Of Love Today” offers a new dimension to a beautiful classic with a message that rings true in modern times. This solo piece feels like a sultry, contrapuntal prayer for a more peaceful and loving future.
One of Baker’s most ardent supporters is acclaimed vibraphonist Warren Wolf, who contributed the album’s liner notes and cosigns on Baker’s promise. Referencing a quote by Mahatma Gandhi in those notes, the future depends on what you do today, he says: “What Jalen is doing today is bringing the vibraphone to new heights and bringing new compositions to the world. The promising young vibist will continue to emerge; with experience comes wisdom. Watch out for Jalen Baker.”
For 'Be Still'
"With 'Lexi's Lullaby' a previous marlbank track of the week and easily the best track this is a stirring album." Read more here.
"To describe the playing on Be Still as inspired hardly captures it." Read more from this review here.
THE JAZZ WORD
"There’s a certain vibrancy and dynamism to Jalen Baker’s music that makes it hard to ignore." Read more of this review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"This is a dynamic and intense album of contemporary jazz. Baker writes good melodies and is a highly accomplished vibraphonist. His supporting cast excels throughout." Read more of this review here.
ALL ABOUT JAZZ
"Baker runs the bars in a single-note style with prickly proficiency, while the pianist Cornish delivers a sharp attack during his interjection." Read more of this review here.
BEBOP SPOKEN HERE
"Be Still, the album, comprises a mix of originals, pieces by Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson and one standard - Body and Soul - all done to perfection." Read more of this review here.
D. OSCAR GROOMES
O'S PLACE JAZZ MAGAZINE
Jalen Baker is a young, jazz vibraphonist, and bandleader bringing tremendous energy into Modern jazz. Paul Cornish (p), Gabriel Godoy (b), and Gavin Moolchan (d) join him on Be Still representing Baker’s journey this far. We like the peacefulness of “Lexis Lullaby”, the energy of “Herzog”, and “Jinrikisha” with a fine bass solo. Jalen is chopping it up all the way through as on “There’s Beauty In Fear”, leaving us anxious for more..
For 'This Is Me, This Is Us'
"The compositions and arrangements are substantial and thoughtful and without unnecessarily cluttered improv, the use of strings is extraordinary and innovative and the execution faultless." Read more here.
"The result is delicate and beautiful—even though the foundation of This is Me, This is Us might be made of heavier themes." Read more here.
DEE DEE MCNEIL
There is great potential in this musician and I’m certain we’ll be hearing much more from the talented vibraphonist, Mr. Jalen Baker. Read this review here.
"Vibraphonist Jalen Baker brings together a clever collection.." Read the full review here.