Most of the music on this exhilarating record defies easy description. Much of it is lyrical, even beautiful. There's some driving, fiery swing. The improvising is of a consistently high order throughout. And Gress contributes his inventive compositions, with structures that challenge the improvisers with knotty harmonies and tempo changes. On 7 Black Butterflies
, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and the parts are extraordinarily good.
Tim Berne's contribution is obvious. The alto saxophonist improvises with heat and originality. He rarely uses the overblowing or noise effects commonly associated with the so-called avant-garde. Instead, he plays striking melodies, as if he were a tart-toned Johnny Hodges. He is especially effective on "Zaftig," his solo climaxing with high, held tones while Alessi intones the song's mournful melody.
But is good as he is, Berne is hardly the only reason to hear this album. There's also Craig Taborn, one of the finest younger pianists out there. He negotiates Gress' structures effortlessly, his comping pushing the horns, his improvising spiky and memorable. He generates a whirlwind of authoritative swing on "Bright Idea." Alessi, an emerging giant among younger trumpeters, is in typically excellent form.
Drew Gress is the unassuming leader, with his composing, his booming tone, his fine solos, and his solid time. He leads a state-of-the-art rhythm section, sometimes hocketing the time, sometimes uniting in explosive swing. Sometimes his bass lines enter into dialogue with Berne or Alessi, and sometimes he walks the walk. Ultimately, he's the glue that holds this music together, and Rainey's excellent drumming is always at the service of the music.
In the 21st Century, jazz has evolved into many different styles or idioms, and there are always musicians today who strive for something new. The ones who play on 7 Black Butterflies are definitely in this category. So while Gress' tumbling tunes have a faint echo of bebop, he plants both feet in the present, while he and his quintet look forward.
Personnel: Drew Gress, bass; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; Tim Berne, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Tom Rainey, drums.