Reviewed on this page:
Roxy Coss - Restless Idealism - Chasing The Unicorn - Straight Forward - The Future Is Female - Quintet
Jazz education programs churn out a lot of highly skilled musicians who are well-versed in a variety of bop and post-bop idioms - and a large percentage of them are sax players, so it's hard for any of them to stand out. Seattle-to-New York transplant Roxy Coss has all those bases covered - she won a bunch of scholarships and awards in school - but what sets her apart is her clear vision as a bandleader, and especially her talent for composition: Though she has tackled various approaches and styles, Coss is usually focused on creating moods rather than trying to impress anybody, and whether she picked that up in school, or somewhere else, or was born with it, I'm glad she's sharing.
I caught a version of the Quintet live in 2011 and reviewed the show here.
While in high school, Coss appeared on the Garfield Jazz Ensemble's Plays Ellington; I haven't heard it.
Roxy Coss (2010)
At the start of her career proper, Coss already knew what she wanted - a post-bop quintet (augmented by guitarist Ryan Brennan on several numbers) with midpaced, melancholy echoes of late 50s Miles Davis - and how to do it, playing with the unassuming clarity and wise restraint of an oldtimer with nothing to prove ("Wandering One"). Some cockiness shows in her song selection - all by Coss, not a standard in sight - and she's not shy about claiming solo space (a flute tour de force on the Latin jazz "A New Time") but there's no grandstanding, no wasted notes. During "Lately" and "July" I plumb forgot I was listening to a record, swept away on the emotional journey.
The rhythm section (bassist Kellen Harrison and drummer/engineer Shawn Baltazor) stays in the background;
Kate Miller's trumpet blending smoothly with the leader, though pianist Justin Kauflin is a bit too mellow for the room, his Rhodes comping recalling Bob James's Taxi theme, and not in a good way. Following this release Coss worked as a side musician - including a lengthy stint with Jeremy Pelt - while maintaining her own combo.
Restless Idealism (2016)
A longer break between albums than I was hoping for, but the good news is the tunes are all Coss originals, and the better news is they're as powerful as the last batch ("The Story Of Fiona").
From the opening "Don't Cross The Coss" - a Parkerian Rhythm Changes head, with Jeremy Pelt guesting on trumpet - there's a crisper approach than the often dreamy debut. The band digs in to the straight-ahead vibe, particularly Willie Jones III (drums) and Chris Pattishall (piano) ("Push"), and even in the reflective moments you sense their readiness to kick it back into high gear. Further changing the texture, most of the disc has no other horn, with guitarist Alex Wintz stepping up to fill the melodic function. Despite the changes, Coss retains her enviable ability to evoke moods ("Waiting," smooth yet slightly unsettling).
Chasing The Unicorn (2017)
Since a second album is often called a sophomore release, would that make this a junior release? In any case, Coss has two complementary agenda items this time out, trying a more freewheeling approach to composition while putting more emphasis on her playing than her writing. As part of that plan, she includes covers for the first time: jazz classics like Wayne Shorter's "Virgo" but also Willie Nelson's "Crazy" and McCartney's "Oh! Darling."
As someone who listens to music mostly for the compositions, this development isn't exactly up my alley, though I will say Coss displays a broader range of approaches, e.g. letting it rip on Joe Henderson's "A Shade Of Jade," and as before her melodic statements are forceful and her solos are inventive ("Endless Cycle").
Though I'm a bit bummed Coss isn't playing flute these days it is nice to hear her on the oft-neglected bass clarinet (the multi-tracked title cut). A new band apart from Wintz: Glenn Zaleski (piano), Rick Rosato (bass) and Jimmy Macbride (drums).
Straight Forward (New Faces: 2018)
Posi-Tone brought together a bunch of its artists into a one-off band, as Roadrunner had done in 2005 on a record I'm just now realizing I never reviewed.
The tunes are by Posi-Tone artists as well, of whom some appear on the record (trumpeter Josh Lawrence's "Frederico") and some don't (Brian Charette's "West Village," a standout; Jared Gold's "Preachin'"). Nothing here is by Coss, though, so it's an interesting record to hear her purely as a player, not a composer or bandleader.
The title has a double meaning: Not only are the artists fearlessly striding into the future, the band is playing recognizably small-combo jazz rooted in Prestige/Blue Note traditions (Herbie Hancock's "King Cobra"). That cuts both ways: Having the players all on the same page leads to a smooth, cohesive blend of voices, but each track has the same approach and they all start to sound the same ("Down The Pike"). Then again, the goal of the disc isn't to be anyone's career high point, but to get the listener interested in each musician's work as a leader, and on that level it succeeds.
The Future Is Female (2018)
There are plenty of great reasons to be a feminist that have nothing to do with Donald Trump, but his surprising ascension to US president sure motivated a lot of people who formerly kept their politics to themselves to stand up and be counted. All the tunes are originals again, and much as Mingus used to do, Coss has given many of them titles that seem ripped from today's headlines, or maybe a DNC fundraising email: "Nevertheless She Persisted"; "Nasty Women Grab Back"; etc. (In 2018 Coss also co-founded the Women In Jazz Organization, so I don't mean to suggest that song titles are the extent of her social consciousness.) Presumably these titles will seem dated in a couple of years, but then I don't think most people remember who Faubus was either. In any case, the tunes are likely to endure: "Nevertheless, She Persisted," switching between straight 8s and swing, is a memorable nod to Joe Henderson's 60s approach. While much of the record is uptempo ("Females Are Strong As Hell"), "She Needed A Hero, So That's What She Became" is a stately mood piece, though Coss's solo exemplifies many of the gripes I have about soprano sax. By contrast, Coss's voice on bass clarinet is distinctive and probing, as on the appropriately disconcerting waltz "#MeToo."
(Lucas Pino, Coss's spouse, also contributes bass clarinet on "Ode To A Generation.")
Miki Yamanaka replaces Zaleski on piano; otherwise it's the same band as Unicorn. Naturally enough, it's Coss's show all the way, though Wintz and Yamanaka get their chances to shine; Macbride has a brief solo in the outro to "Little Did She Know."
Produced by Marc Free.
New interpretations of songs from her debut ("Enlightenment") through the previous release ("Females Are Strong As Hell"), and one standard "All Or Nothing At All." Overall it's a good summary of the compositions during the first decade of her recording career ("Don't Cross The Coss"), and as the title implies, there's equal emphasis on her working band. Charting singles don't matter much anymore but "Enlightenment" has a ton of spins on Spotify so I guess that's a modern equivalent; the song has long been a favorite of mine so it's good to see it getting some kind of recognition. On the other hand, I'd forgotten about Unicorn's "Free To Be," which gets a rip-roaring treatment.
Most of these players were on the original recordings, and generally they don't sound very different (though "Females Are Strong As Hell" is sped up).