On his sixth and first-ever live album, The Fate of the Tenor, saxophonist Kevin Sun showcases his working trio in their element, performing at their most electrifying for a live, dive bar audience in the industrial south Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus.
Recorded on the summer solstice in June 2022, The Fate of the Tenor documents Sun’s working band with bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor-a true rarity in modern jazz-on a particularly good night during his residency at Lowlands Bar, where he has performed every Tuesday since September 2021 and continues to perform weekly in 2024.
Sun had released two trio albums before, which include his 2018 debut and 2020’s (Un)seaworthy, but he wanted to capture the energy and sound of the band at their home venue, which he feels is the truest expression of their music:
« There was no setlist and no sheet music, because we had played the music so much over the past few years that we had it all memorized, » says Sun. « We had been working up to this point over hundreds of hours of rehearsing and playing, so that any one of us could just start playing with an idea and go off, go into a song, go into something else-whatever we wanted to do. »
The music on this album is not only a testament to the dedication of Sun’s ensemble, but also a reflection of the trust and goodwill of Lowlands Bar owner John Niccoli, a part-time musician himself and music enthusiast who never planned for his neighborhood dive to become a primetime venue for live jazz and other music.
Bassist Stinson, who worked as a bartender there for several years before the pandemic, introduced the saxophonist to Niccoli, who gave him a monthly gig in April 2019, which re-emerged post-pandemic as a weekly gig.
On the beginnings of this collaboration, Niccoli writes in the album’s liner notes: I figured, why not? I love jazz. Mom loves jazz. And if the bar patrons don’t like jazz, they can go somewhere else. This is Brooklyn, after all.
Sun’s trio with bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Matt Honor has performed together for nearly 10 years, having begun as a rehearsal-only workshop in 2015 with like-minded improvisers to explore the saxophonist’s musical interests.
« Walter is one of the truly rare bassists who possesses the key ingredients of jazz playing, swing and invention, in equal measure with interpreting challenging notated material, » says Sun. « Similarly, I’ve always thought Matt was an ideal artist for this relatively dense and complex material; his orchestrational impulses at the kit make the counterpoint and compositional elements effortlessly crisp and clear. »
The trio had previously toured to China in 2019 shortly before the pandemic, but this recording marks the apex of this particular band playing at maximal complexity and with maximal freedom. Of their live recording, Stinson says, « We reached a place of unadulterated and unrestrained expression within the music that night, and this is the clearest documentation of that. » Honor felt similarly, adding, « I think we surprised each other by taking this music—some of which we started playing in 2017—to some new places. »
The original repertoire on The Fate of the Tenor similarly represents Sun’s musical taste for adventure and exploration, with faint lingering traces of mentors such as saxophonist Mark Turner and pianist Vijay Iyer, but with a playful and fresh perspective altogether his own.
Songs like « Elden Steps » and « Involuted Blues » simultaneously incorporate references to recent blockbuster video games and Chinese online trends while pushing the boundaries of sophistication in rhythm and counterpoint. Sun also includes a lone standard on the program, Billy Strayhorn’s « A Flower is a Lovesome Thing, » introduced by a capella saxophone to a suddenly-hushed audience of receptive bar patrons.
« Playing every week in a bar taught me a lot about the actual practice of playing for and winning over an audience, because most people aren’t there for the music-at least, at first, » says Sun. « It’s completely different from playing in a place that sells tickets or is specifically focused on present jazz, but I imagine it’s related to what some of my heroes did to pay their dues, which I find both humbling and inspiring. »
The Fate of the Tenor is a snapshot in time of a saxophonist and a band coming into their own through the labors and joys of playing small-time gigs week after week, year after year. Although he has no intentions of disavowing the recording studio in the future, on this album Sun has no regrets trading the immaculate sonics of the studio for the grittier soulfulness of Lowlands, and he has succeeded here in capturing the magic and music of a single night in south Brooklyn.