Nick Hempton Slick (Triple Distilled 2021)


Cat’s foot iron claw, soul jazz freaks scream for more.

NIck Hempton - Slick


Nick Hempton (tenor and alto saxophone), Peter Bernstein (guitar), Kyle Koehler (organ), Fukushi Tainaka (drums)


in 2020 at GB’s Juke Joint


as Triple Distilled Records 004in 2021

Track listing

The Runaround
Liar’s Dice
Born To Be Blue
Short Shrift
Upstairs Eddy
People Will Say We’re In Love
Snake Oil
The Gypsy
Fryin’ With Fergus
The Masquerade Is Over

Gene Ammons was recognized as a ‘soul’ player. Figurehead of the development from ‘race’ music to soul jazz, “The Boss” or “Jug” was not an innovator but a people’s champion, king of the chitlin’ circuit of black clubs who synchronized modern jazz and blues. Nick Hempton is a postmodern ‘soul’ player. Born in Sydney, Australia and a New York City stalwart for years, Hempton’s meaty but sophisticated style, inspired not only by Ammons but also by Dexter Gordon, Stanley Turrentine and Sonny Stitt (switching equally fluently between tenor and alto sax) is an instantly recognizable delight. He’s smooth, he’s juicy and his tone wears a three-day stubble beard. Hempton, to paraphrase King Crimson, is a 21st century chitlin’ man.

For a couple of years now, Hempton has led an organ group featuring guitarist Peter Bernstein, organist Kyle Koehler and drummer Fukushi Tainaka, veteran of the Lou Donaldson band. It released Night Owl in 2019, now there’s Slick, recorded on analogue gear at GB’s Juke Joint, one of the reasons why Hempton’s latest outing full of blues-drenched originals and standards is such an enjoyable listen, the musical equivalent of high-class ebony wood. Why so few jazz artists reach back to the warmth – and the force of limitations that comes with it – of vintage engineering is beyond me.

Hempton’s catchy original tunes, based on shuffle, Latin and boogaloo beats, smoke from beginning to end, not least because the saxophonist demonstrates a canny sense of dynamics and tells uplifting stories earmarked by forceful howls, like foghorns in the misty night. Personalities blend like sour, sweet and umami, lusty Hempton with crystalline Bernstein and vibrant Koehler. Bernstein, typically consistent architect of layered passages, plays like an eager young lion. He’s on top of his form. Koehler finds a good balance between grease and bop, his lines swirl around the smoke rings of the juke joint, his comping is subtle and stimulative.

In the borderland of hard bop and soul jazz, these fellows are champions. Hempton’s alto playing is lovely, as People Will Say We’re In Love from Rodgers and Hart (from the musical Oklahoma that also spawned Surrey With The Fringe On Top) convincingly demonstrates, though I prefer the unbeatable tenor/organ combination. It’s been a while since I’ve heard such a warm-blooded interpretation of the blues ballad Born To Be Blue, a long while, and it compares well with the versions of Grant Green and Bobby Timmons.

The band’s most urgent attraction besides shuffle fest Fryin’ With Fergus (catchy titles like Snake Oil, Liar’s Dice and Upstairs Eddy further reflect Hempton’s postmodern chitlin’ aesthetic; note, too, the ‘worn’ black sleeve), no doubt, is Hempton’s uptempo bop tune Short Shrift. Their wheels are on fire and explode. Better watch out for Hempton’s tight-knit NYC organ combo crew.

Nick Hempton

Find Slick here.

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