Hailey Niswanger was already getting rave reviews as a teenager. A listen to the saxophonist’s PDX Soul (2015) tells why.

Niswanger is accompanied by a variable lineup of players. Errick Lewis, and AG Donnaloia, guitar; appear on all tracks. Janice Scroggins handles keys on all but one song.

A groovy bass line greets the ear on the first track, “I’m Gone.” It’s an upbeat, see ya, I’m outta here kind of song. Niswanger plays the soprano on this one. Her lead is lighthearted, almost romantic, but not sugary sweet as a lot of soprano sax-led songs of this style tend to be. Lewis is dynamic throughout. Drummer Brian Foxworth makes a substantial contribution, though mainly as background. Donnaloia, Scroggins and Colligan also get busy. After a mostly easygoing, playful lead, Niswanger cuts loose big time. As if the proclamation of leaving weren’t convincing, she becomes emphatic, assertive during a sequence after the middle break. Then the two keyboard players take over, one out front and the other providing fills. It gives the song a late-1960s, early ’70s type of soulful instrumental sound. Not all the musicians get to solo here, but everyone makes a statement.

“Skytime” is a moderately paced song. Niswanger and Donnaloia share the led during the melody. Niswanger opts for the alto sax. Christopher Brown takes over drum duties, and percussionist Curtis Craft sits in. This is another all-in piece, wherein all the musicians are clearly heard, each delivering his or her own touch of personality. In what appears to be a keyboard solo by Scroggins doubles as a showcase for Brown. Rolls, slides, crashes, splashes, snare and toms – all of the kit gets a workout. Niswanger plays with plenty of vigor.

Things get funky when trombonist Stan Bock sets the stage for “Say What It Is.” Additional horns are Renato Caranto, tenor saxophone; Thara Memory and Ben McDonald, trumpets. While Bock is doing his thing, Caranto and McDonald team up for a wailing response to the trombone’s call. When Niswanger finally makes an appearance, the band is already on fire, and she just adds more fuel. Yes, the term “blows you away” is appropriate.
One almost expects an appearance by James Brown on the equally funky “Let a Woman Be a Woman, Let a Man Be a Man,” one of three cover songs in the set. Andy Stokes sings lead, and comments in a manner similar to Brown’s.

Tahirah Memory steps in to sing lead on the cover of the soulful ballad, “Yes, I’m Ready.” She delivers with a vocal styling similar to that of the late Teena Marie. Niswanger, on alto this time, blows with intense passion.

Every song is worth noting, but by now, you should have the picture that this is hot stuff.
Niswanger graduated in December of 2011 with a bachelor of arts degree in Jazz Performance from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Born February 12, 1990, in Houston, Texas, she now hails from Portland, Oregon. Niswanger has shared the stage with such luminaries as Esperanza Spalding, DeeDee Bridgewater, George Duke, Joe Lovano, Terri Lyne Carrington, Harvey Mason, Phil Woods, Christian McBride, McCoy Tyner, Maceo Parker, Wynton Marsalis and many more.

Niswanger was part of Spalding’s Radio Music Society. She also recorded flute for Carrington’s Grammy award-winning album, The Mosaic Project. She has led clinics for jazz musicians of all ages. And she was listed among the DownBeat critics poll for rising star on alto and soprano saxophone for 2013 and 2014.

Niswanger composed all five original songs on PDX Soul.