- Kate Joyce
- Nick Mazzarella
JAZZ | Peter Margasak
It's hard to listen This Is Only a Test, the new live album by alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, and not think of Ornette Coleman. The opening lick of the title track sounds suspiciously like the opening lick from Coleman's "The Fifth of Beethoven," cut 41 years ago with his classic quartet, and Mazzarella, 27, doesn't deny the influence. "Ornette is like a primary source," he says. "He planted his flag on something very fundamental, like Monk did, and it's hard to get close to the territory he staked out without becoming overshadowed by or raising the ghost of the original man."
Listen to the whole album, though, and it becomes clear that Mazzarella—whose excellent trio with bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly recorded the album live at the Hungry Brain last May—is doing much more than evoking Coleman. He's been listening to jazz since he was ten, beginning with classics from his father's collection (Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker) and progressing to John Coltrane, particularly Newport '63, in high school. "That record really changed things for me," he says. "It gave me a palpable sense of what my instrument could do and what a human being could express through improvisation." The Woodridge native didn't fall for Coleman till he was earning his bachelor's in music at DePaul.
He graduated in 2006, then returned the following year for a master's, by which time he was a regular at concerts presented by Umbrella Music. Soon he enlisted Hatwich and Rosaly, key figures in that community, to play in his trio; on This Is Only a Test, the group's second album together, the two of them keep a tight rein on the songs, maintaining a lithe, crisp drive. Many of Mazzarella's compositions borrow Coleman's ebullient, jaunty melodicism, but he often changes the mood when he takes an extended solo—his dark, visceral phrasing and strident tone recall fire breathers like Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler.
When Mazzarella isn't playing a horn, he's often fixing one. He apprentices at a shop in Downers Grove called BandSource, repairing reed and brass instruments, and he says he once did some emergency work on Josh Berman's cornet in the back of the Hungry Brain. As a sideman Mazzarella plays with Frank Rosaly's Green and Gold, a band dedicated to the music of Prince Lasha and Sonny Simmons, and in August he played in Rob Mazurek's Exploding Star Orchestra for the group's Whistler residency.