(Avocet Records P- 105)
Rich Halley - Tenor Saxophone; Gary Harris -Alto Saxophone; Tom Hill - Trombone; Geoff Lee - Piano; Phil Sparks - Bass; William Thomas - Drums
This is the kind of album that should make musicians like myself feel good. As indicated on the very explicit liner notes (written by Paul de Barros), the market for this music is minimal, to say the least. As Mr.. Barros points out, this is even true in the so-called "jazz capital" of the world, New York, where the music that can be heard for the most part is performed by conservative and established groups (This situation is an article in itself!). The point is that the music on this album and by other similar groups around the U.S., is gratifying to hear. It shows that on the grass roots level, the essential exploratory nature of jazz is not completely forgotten in the midst of the current pedestrian tastes of the greater part of the jazz public. In any case, on to the album.
It is noted that this is Rich Halley's third album. Though unfamiliar with the previous two I can surmise that this record reflects the evolution of a singular concept towards both the material and its presentation on a record. The music here is homogenous, yet full of variety. It is not overly harmonic, but centers more on melodic and rhythmic concepts, especially compositionally. The tunes are quite interesting and in several cases, quite unpredictable as in Library Steps and The Lizard Brothers. The solo form in Threok is seventeen bars while the two chorus melody is fifteen and sixteen bars respectively. Another interesting format is the solo form on Cracked Sidewalks, which is forty-two bars in length. I mention the solo formats because when the improvisers place themselves in such unusual bar lengths, the ordinary challenges presented when soloing become compounded by having to stay within such a framework.
The idiom these gentlemen are playing in borders on free bop, a kind of avant-garde version of post bebop. There are definite echoes of Ornette Coleman's music as well as 1970s Keith Jarrett with Dewey Redman. Also, some early Jan Garbarek creeps through, especially in the manner in which Halley himself bends and expresses notes, saxophonically speaking. The rhythm section in this music does not play in the formalized supportive role of more straight ahead jazz where the accompanists "shadow" the soloist. There is more independence between the soloist and rhythm section, although the rapport is wonderful. This concept is quite clear on the closing cut, The Lizard Brothers, which by the way is the group's name, In fact, some of the nicest moments for the soloists occur when the pianist drops out and lets just the drums and bass play. Of course, on the more harmonic tunes like the gospel-like Cracked Sidewalks, pianist Geoff Lee competently provides the necessary chordal background.
The idea of treating the piano as another horn is an important facet of this music and Geoff Lee plays this role with great taste. Throughout the melody choruses he inserts numerous percussive comments and a wide variety of chordal colorings; sometimes quite reminiscent of both Cecil Taylor and Thelonius Monk (who are musically related more than one might think). Lee's own soloing features a lot of cluster chords interspersed with single lines. In A View Of The World... he plays some intense, swinging right hand lines with no left hand accompaniment. This style, used by Herbie Hancock for a period during the middle 1960s with Miles Davis, is effective for relief and contrast from the usual twohanded playing we're used to. Also, Lee plays with a great deal of energy, well controlled, throughout the album.
Halley's saxophone playing is very dependent on the varied colors and nuances he uses on the horn. His solos are full of life and interesting rhythmic shapes. A lot of the effect is the result of the big, loose sound he gets on the tenor. With so much width applied to each note, he has a lot of room to shape the tone. The bottom register is particularly big sounding and forceful, yet not strident. It seems that he is using a soft reed and/or a big tip opening, as is common in this style of playing. Blues licks are interspersed with freer a-rhythmic, nonharmonic lines. This is always an interesting dichotomy for me in this style of playing; the rather unobvious matchup between the most basic of languages which is the blues, and free avant-garde textures. What is crucial to this way of playing, is that the musician is strong and convincing in his presentation. For the blues side, Halley gets down on the 12/8 blues section of A View Of The World.
The solo spots by Gary Harris on alto, Tom Hill on trombone, William Thomas on drums and Phil Sparks on bass are good and supportive of the entire presentation. But most outstanding in this respect are the arrangements for three horns and the way they phrase together. Cracked Sidewalks and Shadow reflect this tightness beautifully in the ensemble portions. On the opposite side there are some intricate unison sections with interesting rhythmic hits spread throughout, especially obvious on The Lizard Brothers. Halley knows how to make three horns sound big, much like the legacy of the Jazz Messengers going back to the 1950s.
Overall, an excellent presentation by some dedicated musicians. You can probably only get this record through the label itself, Avocet or from Rich Halley at 5540 N. Commercial Ave., Portland, Oregon 97217. Again hats off to these foot soldiers of jazz and others like them.