There was a time that you couldn’t fly out of Richmond without seeing then-undergraduate Victor Haskins, nattily suited and larger than life, on the concourse wall anchoring the VCU Arts advertising mural. Superimposed beside his image: “When knowledge, talent and passion work in perfect harmony, that’s true art.”
So, that is something to live up to.
Quietly virtuosic and deeply-focused, Haskins at that time was a star in Rex Richardson’s trumpet studio, the first and still the only person to graduate in three years. Now the director of In-School Jazz Ensembles at the Kennedy Center, and adjunct professor at William and Mary, he’s continued to expand his polished musical palette. Perhaps most surprising is his embrace of the Electronic Wind Instrument- a breath-operated synthesizer whose effects go beyond the single-notes of the trumpet to open a chordal harmonic landscape.
“Showing Up” is a fitting update to Haskin’s excellent 2013 debut “The Truth [32 Bar Records].” Where that recording was a melodically lush, mostly acoustic quintet session in the classic Blue Note mold, the new release is fronting his trio, Skein. (The word has several meanings- a knotted braid, a complicated situation, or a V-shaped flight of waterfowl.)
While the arrangements are stripped down, that leaves more space for Haskins. His development is most obvious on two songs also included on the earlier release. “Morning,” like the earlier version, is acoustic. But where before the horn was cosseted in lovely piano playing by Steve Kessler, the new version is sparer, it’s lyricism more intimate. While wordless, Haskins' songs are like short stories, and in this case the narrative is clear, as the music moves from gentle awareness to full engagement.
“Grey” is a more radical departure. Haskins' EWI often sounds like a keyboard. He functions mostly in a supporting role to bassist Randal Pharr, providing a constantly shifting undercurrent of lyrical, echoey washes. Pat Metheny’s early guitar synthesizer playing is a tonal comparison, but in Metheny’s case, the electronica is an extension of his familiar instrumental voice. Haskins has a strong individual voice, but it is too unpredictable to have set into a brandable “style.”
Each of the songs has its own narrative logic and they are sequenced in a way that contrasts their varying moods and tempos. (Not that some of the songs are not themselves constructed of contrasting sections.) The reflective march tempos of “Reliving the Past” are followed by the acceleration/decelerations of “Swift” and then the raucous Herbie Hancock Headhunters strut of “Five in the Pocket.”
There are no passengers in a trio recording. With so few players, every player’s part must work as foreground. While Haskins has the flashiest role, the success of the record depends equally on the adept, subtle, and unpredictable drumming of Tony Martucci. Randall Pharr’s basslines are so forward in the mix as be the second melodic lead.