Young and talented Irvin Mayfield releases record full of promise, disappointment

At the young age of 25, Irvin Mayfield has already made a name for himself on the modern jazz scene. Under the influence of Wynton Marsalis and Delfeayo Marsalis, he has unmistakably become the most accomplished and skilled young trumpeter around. He has recorded a trio of albums with Los Hombres Calientes, a group he co-leads with Bill Summers, and has cut a few individual records as well. 2001’s How Passion Falls was an incredibly skilled but very unoriginal series of romantic compositions and his latest work, Half Past Autumn Suite, which consists of an hour of new work, largely follows this pattern. Although the majority of the recordings follow the traditional New Orleans swing groove that is Mayfield’s signature style, however, there are moments that are starkly original and enlightening. Ultimately, Autumn Suite will rightfully burnish Mayfield’s artistic and creative reputation and likely become a transition album that extends his range and style.

The New Orleans Museum of Art commissioned the album as a tribute to famed photographer and Renaissance man Gordon Parks, known to many as the original director of Shaft. The record, once again featuring and produced by the Marsalis Brothers, accompanied NOMA’s exhibit of Parks’ photography. Most of the songs on Autumn Suite seek to musically capture and convey the imagery of a series of Parks’ photographs, which are reprinted in the album’s liner notes. With regard to mirroring the photographs through a complementary artistic medium, Mayfield fails. Nevertheless, he often enough produces achingly emotional and potent rhythms that are a testament to his artistic stature, if not to his creativity.

“Moonscape,” the first track, is a subdued meandering swing track primarily highlighted by Richard Johnson’s efforts on piano. Jaz Sawyer provides an excellent and cohesive rhythm from the drums. This is standard Mayfield fare: a steady rhythmic swing groove that is neither exciting nor disappointing. Unfortunately, “Moonscape” tends to sacrifice improvisation for cohesion and fails to evoke photographic imagery or exhilarate and inspire the listener. “Jazz Poetry #1,” “Fatima” and “Jazz Poetry #2” are all disappointing for the same reason. Though “Jazz Poetry #1” utilizes unique rhythmic idioms and inflections that are unusual for Mayfield, it feels random and lacks unity or purpose. “Fatima” is a love ballad that is uninspired and has little depth or emotional heft. “Jazz Poetry #2” is the most disappointing track; it has so little tonal variation that it serves as nothing more than several minutes of filler. Though all of these songs have good, melodious vibrations, they are not unique or interesting in the same way as some of the other tracks.

“Love Petals” is an extremely subdued ballad that succeeds where “Fatima” fails. While not straying from a broken-in creative path, Mayfield fully displays his mastery by leading us through a complex series of emotions. His trumpet is well paced and vulnerable as he explores the depths of the listener’s pathos.

“Evening” provides the first glimpse of greater range on Autumn Suite. It is mostly an up-tempo bop rhythm with a Caribbean influence, but Mayfield and saxophonist Aaron Fletcher’s improvisations are bravura and at times one can see them facing an unfamiliar wall as they delve into unusually frenetic grooves. “Flowerscape” operates in a similar manner. Mayfield alternates between a standard groove and much more spontaneous improvisations and staccato riffs that are dramatic, tense and stirring. There is a sense of cautious curiosity when Fletcher’s alto saxophone joins Mayfield’s trumpet in a rousing series of twisting rhythms and melodic variations.

“Blue Dawn” guest features Wynton Marsalis, who has achieved international renown as the most accomplished and admired trumpeter in jazz today. On this track, his mastery effortlessly outshines Mayfield. “Blue Dawn” is a laidback, traditional New Orleans ballad and one of the stronger songs on the record.

“Wind Song,” the only song not penned by Mayfield, is written by Parks and features him on piano. It is a classically influenced song placed uneasily among the swing-based jazz songs on the rest of the album. Even so, its composition and execution is melodically beautiful, sorrowful and suggestive of underlying complex emotions.

The final track, “Toward Infinity,” hints at Mayfield’s potential as an artist. It is a very successful exploration of deeply layered melodies and riffs that are developed in “Evening” and “Flowerscape” but not fully evinced until the final song. By suggesting that the creative composing capabilities of Mayfield have a future with a more extensive repertoire, the track ends the album with a positive note.

I must admit that I have never been particularly impressed by Mayfield’s earlier efforts. His artistic ability deserves respect, but the critical acclaim he received made him hesitant to break out of the mold created by trumpeting greats and predecessors like Wynton Marsalis. Nevertheless, I cannot impeach Mayfield’s instrumental abilities and Half Past Autumn Suite, though occasionally uniform and stylistically stultifying, achieves new variations in mood and tone that promise great, new things to come.

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