Andrea Canter Reviews Jon Pemberton’s “On the Edge”

by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor, Jazz Police. Published 29 November, 2010

One of the most versatile musicians in the Twin Cities, Jon Pemberton’s resume includes performing with the Skatet, Shangoya, Paul Renz Quintet, George Avaloz, Jim Marentic and more. In addition to leading the Pembertones, his Lee Morgan tribute ensemble is a popular, nearly annual act at the Artists Quarter. Equally comfortable in straight-ahead and more avant garde formats, Pemberton is a dedicated educator, teaching private lessons, not only on trumpet, but also euphonium, trombone, French horn, tuba and piano.

Oh yes, piano! Jon’s first instrument, from age six, was followed by guitar and then trumpet lessons at age 11. But he never stopped playing piano, even while earning his degree in trumpet performance at Macalester College. An opportunity to study piano with the late Bobby Peterson rekindled Pemberton’s keyboard talent, and he soon was alternating on his two instruments on his Pembertone gigs at Zander’s and the Loring Pasta Bar. Recently, he served as music director for Mercy Seat Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, composing several jazz liturgies.

On the Edge features Jon on piano with stellar local companions, Gary Raynor on bass and Jay Epstein on drums. Eight original compositions are featured, along with two from Bobby Peterson (to whom the album is dedicated) and a solo cover of “Monk’s Mood.” Tributes abound here, as the inclusion of Peterson’s compositions certainly pays homage to Pemberton’s keyboard mentor. “Gail Ellen” is a gentle, lyrical mid-tempo tune with subtle fireworks from Jay Epstein; “Cool Streams” features elegant lines and interplay between the pianist’s right and left hands, brightening in mood and rhythm as the tune progresses, with vague suggestions of “Night and Day.” More specific tributes from Pemberton’s pen include “Randall’s Gone,” a sweet ballad dedicated to a favorite uncle who recently passed away, and “One for John Clegg,” the late saxophonist, teacher and AQ patron affectionately known as JC. Here Raynor’s counterpoint is prominent, while Epstein’s cymbal dance is a subtle pacesetter. And there are moments that seem ripe for a good trumpet solo—maybe next outing there will be some overdubs of Jon comping for Jon? “Remembering the Fallen” is dedicated to the victims of the I-35W bridge collapse. Gary provides a solemn bass intro; melodic themes weave tightly in a vein that recalls Abdullah Ibrahim and perhaps reflecting Pemberton’s recent liturgical work, as well as the influence of horns in his writing.

Other original compositions offer a diverse palette: The slight jerkiness to the rhythm of the title track pushes it forward as do Raynor’s basslines. The tune settles into a hard bopping, rushed swing built on three repeating chords that put the listener “on the edge.” Both Raynor and Epstein show off their solo chops early. “Liner Notes” is a standard blues form with a percussive Monkish jag to the rhythm. Jay’s solo adds tipsy delights, while Gary walks up and down with authority. While fun to hear, one can also imagine the playful visual exchanges among the trio. It’s one of Jon’s oldest tunes, but carries a timeless quirky joy. On Jon’s “Power Trip,” Epstein introduces another hard bop jaunt, Pemberton clearly inspired by the likes of Tommy Flanagan and Kenny Barron, while Jay lays out on his own “power trip.” Written for congregational singing during Jon’s tenure at Mercy Seat Church, “The Lord’s Prayer” indeed suggests an inaudible lyric, its bluesy, gospel threads and funky groove hardly consistent with the usual Minnesota Lutheran aesthetic. The closing “Break for Zander” references Pemberton’s regular gig at the late Zander Café. And it feels like a closing tune, perhaps the last call of the night, or in tribute to the last night of the café. It’s a boppish swinger showcasing each musician – Raynor on a quick break followed by Epstein, then back to Jon for a few more verses before bass and drums each take a more concentrated solo to set up the finish.

The lone cover is a gem, Jon’s solo run at “Monk’s Mood” with a virtuosic arrangement and delicate blues and even Tatumesque touches. If there was any question that Jon Pemberton is indeed a pianist, here’s the answer. At the CD release this weekend at the Artists Quarter, Billy Peterson will take over on the bass, meaning cousin Bobby will be somewhere on the bandstand, watching over his protégé, smiling.

-Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor, Jazz Police, 11/29/10

“A veteran jazzman renowned for his tributes to Lee Morgan and swinging quintet, the Pembertones, Jon Pemberton released his debut recording, On the Edge, at the Artists Quarter on December 3-4, 2010. But if you are expecting some high flying trumpeteering, think again. This is a piano trio recording, with Pemberton highlighting his “other” instrument.”