Nick Leffler: Baby Steps

The soprano saxophonist debuts a quartet with Andrew Skepasts, Dan Howard, and Alex Marr

Nick Leffler: Baby Steps

Soprano saxophonist Nick Leffler leads a quartet on his first album Baby Steps featuring Andrew Skepasts on guitar, Dan Howard on bass, and Alex Marr on drums, except for the first three tracks which are drumless.

Fellow saxophonist and burgeoning recordist Ardeshir Pourkeramati tracked the session at Pandora's Box Studio 19, where the Boomers in my former band's inner circle used to have Friday night jams and drinks. That's where Leffler laid down this well-captured document of his intense playing, which reflects the spirit of Dave Liebman and associates.

Howard and Marr's swing feels like the second set of the Tangent Cafe or the first at Presentation House, or even Jazz House, where members of this band have surely stretched out over the years. On the drumless tracks, Howard gets extra space to dig into the bass' medium-high register and use his excellent timefeel to move the trio forward.

Leffler has an original blues, "The Snip", with a reharmonization in its ending. The bigger re-harm, though, is his highlight reworking of "My One and Only Love" with many colorful chords and then a free section. That's one of the three standards on the record, along with the opener "You Must Believe in Spring" and the closer "Moment's Notice". where Andrew's guitar chording stays so close to the horn backgrounds from the famous Coltrane recording and the band sounds well-studied. That's not all: at the end of the album, Leffler leaves us with a cheeky "Giant Steps" quote.

The other tracks are all Leffler's smart originals. I don't think I've ever seen the engineer credited by name and role on the cover of an album before. It's pretty casual, which is a contrast to the passionate energy I've felt Leffler bring on the horn at different times across the past decade.

To me, he's a virtuoso I found myself next-to occasionally and couldn't wait to hear again. He always had so much energy that when I played with him, all I could do was try to stay with it.

But on this album, Leffler never sounds rushed; on the contrary he sounds settled into the nooks and crannies of the craft. Listen to the patience and the long tones of "Luna" for one example, or the way he holds out notes on "You Must Believe in Spring" before releasing them for another. He has gained maturity and command of the language while keeping that fire, and that's what's most impressive about this debut several years in the making.

Baby Steps cover
Art: Nick Leffler, Miranda Leffler, & Ronan Stephens

released Feb. 7, 2024 / Buy digital-only (Bandcamp) / Available on streaming