Despite its seeming obscurity, the cello has a fairly long history in jazz and improvised music. Apart from Oscar Pettiford's use of it in the early '50s, the instrument came into its own in the '60s and '70s under the guidance of such figures as Calo Scott, Ron Carter, Joel Freedman, Alan Silva, Abdul Wadud, and David Eyges. Eyges' name will be familiar to many, but his association with Indiana-based cellist and composer David Baker and work with Byard Lancaster and Bob Moses in the late '70s and early '80s put him consistently on the map of the loft jazz scene.
Eyges has made his mark by concentrating on a heavily R&B-laced approach, assembling tunes with a heavy backbeat and infectious vamps that make use of the cello's flexible timbre, making use of both bass and viola ranges. Though he has a strong arco approach, Eyges has historically tended to focus on pizzicato playing, laying down earthy basslines as well as attacking with a guitar-like facility. Ace, featuring altoist Arthur Blythe and drummer Abe Speller (an associate of Bill Laswell and Sonny Sharrock in the late '80s), recalls Eyges' self-produced Crossroads LP, with Lancaster and Sunny Murray (Music Unlimited, 1981) in not merely instrumentation. Though also subtle, Speller's more metered percussion is a far cry from Murray's freely-floating approach to time ("time as in all of time"), and thus Ace feels less tense and significantly more grounded (whether that's a good thing is another question).
Blythe and Lancaster are very similar altoists in this context. Lancaster, though sometimes given to extended technique, is at heart an R&B saxophonist; ditto Blythe, whose pedigree includes extensive work in California soul and blues outfits. Compositionally, the thematic material is loose and the pieces briefEyges has always had a penchant for brevity, in the sense that he writes self-contained songs that, while remaining springboards, refrain from seeming like "blowing room." Whereas on previous dates, these fragments carried through various concepts on their own, there is a similarity to many of the numbers on Ace, and despite the captivating funk that pervades otherwise great pieces like "There You Go" and "L. J.," one is left with the feeling that this date could have gone farther. Eyges and Speller are a perfectly-matched duo, but one does wish for more significant solo statements from the leaderoddly, there are few.
Eyges, Blythe, and Speller make a rhythmically formidable and lyrical team on Ace, but lyricism and solid ground do not alone make an interesting record. Eyges' pedigree of engaging free bop and eclectic group music is formidable, and his contribution to the lineage of jazz and blues cello valuable. It is unfortunate that this session couldn't have been a more significant notch in Eyges' pole.