Saxophonist Ben Flocks's first album, "Battle Mountain" (www.benflocks.com), has just been released, and many older, more experienced players would be smart to listen. Flocks, who grew up in Santa Cruz, Calif., rolls through solos in a manner that's gone missing in a lot of jazz. He's a gracious and fluent player -- has been, almost abnormally so, since a young age -- and he makes it all sound so easy. He sneaks up on the listener: When his pleasure-filled solos arrive at a point of gritty intensity, it comes as a surprise.
He doesn't overplay, and he sounds like he's enjoying himself. Listen to "Battle Mountain," the title track, which opens this disc. It launches like Elvin Jones in the heartland, with Evan Hughes' kicking drums, fed by Garret Lang's gutsy-toned bass and guitarist Ari Chersky's big splashes of bell-toned chords. Then Flocks enters with that fine-grained sound on tenor, prodding the action. The track feels like jazz that we know -- it's out of a Coltrane bag -- but it also feels like fresh air and big trees. In essence, what it feels like is jazz informed by the Santa Cruz hill town of Bonny Doon -- nicknamed "Battle Mountain" -- where Flocks, 24, was raised.
"Shenandoah," the folk song, is treated like a tone poem, soothing and spiritual, quietly awash in Chersky's looped pedal effects. Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" bounces along amiably. It feels great -- and then lifts with Flocks's solo. He eases into it, shaping notes and phrases in a manner reminiscent of his former teacher, Joshua Redman, but with his own kinds of blues and gesture and spice. The whole band is terrific; pianist Sam Reider's solo sails like a glider.
And that's only the first three tracks. There are eight more, most of them right on the money. Flocks can slow-dance a melody; listen to "Murmullo." And he's a generous leader, putting the spotlight on Reider's rollicking back-porch accordion for Leadbelly's "Silver City Bound." This is skilled, communicative playing by these five young musicians, all but Lang (who's from Los Angeles) originally from Northern California. There are no tricks, and there's no showing off. And I'm not surprised; I've known Flocks since he was 12. He and my son Jesse, also a tenor player, have been musical soul mates since the seventh grade. So I've eavesdropped on countless hours of practicing and attended many formative gigs.
He lives in New York these days. But he expects to be back on the West Coast this summer, and is hoping to book some gigs. Stay tuned. In the meantime, take a trip to "Battle Mountain."
Ben Flocks's 'Battle Mountain'