Saxophonist Fred Hess' latest release on the independent Colorado-based Tapestry label is his quartet's best. With trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Matt Wilson, Crossed Paths features a more tight-knit unit and a composer more comfortable writing for this particular ensemble.
Like eclectic trumpeter Dave Douglas, the unheralded Hess is versed in the tradition as much as the avant-garde style, and the excitement of not knowing when he is going to draw on one or the other is what makes his albums so enjoyable. His composition is influenced largely by the "free yet systematic writing of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, but listening to Crossed Paths reveals a definite AACM influence, in addition to that of the classic saxmen Hess so eagerly references (Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and Sonny Rollins).
What seems to hurt Hess most is the fact that he isn't a Chicago-based firebrand or NYC experimentalist. The sixty-something saxophonist has been based in Denver since 1981; in addition to his quartet, Hess is the founder and bandleader of the Boulder Creative Music Ensemble and teaches, along with Miles, at the Metropolitan Stage College of Denver.
Hess' knowledge of the Chicago style is displayed well on "The Clef's Visit Grandma's, which features tasteful use of space and silence, Miles' skittish trumpet, and the occasional grunt and growl (and bark) from Hess and his tenorand again on the album-closing "Untying the Knot, with its Roscoe Mitchell flavor. On the flipside, "In the No begins with boppish timekeeping from Filiano and Wilson and smoother, more linear playing from Hess. The album's title track swings (sort of), with outstanding use of layered rhythms (the ever-pleasing four-against-three trick), while the opener, "On Perry St., features Hess blowing over a quasi-punk rhythm. This contrast, the back-and-forth between free and not-so-free, is Crossed Paths' cardinal feature.
Overall, the pairing of Miles and Hess is superb. For all of the tradition's influence on Hess, Miles seems to be altogether more avant-garde-leaning. The seemingly little-known Miles' most notable credits include working on multiple albums with Bill Frisell (under the guitarist's name and his own). Filiano and Wilson may also be unfamiliar names to some, and unfortunately sotheir solid backing of Miles and Hess allows the two frontmen to explore with an unbridled freedom.
Hess' music is drawn from the same vein as another new favorite of mine, John O'Gallagher. Both seem inspired largely by elements of modern composed music, striving to incorporate the technical traits of modern classical into a small ensemble setting. Both combine equal parts of the tradition and the avant-garde, and both should be at the top of your list to check out.
Visit Fred Hess on the web.
Personnel: Fred Hess (tenor saxophone), Ron Miles (trumpet), Ken Filiano (bass), Matt Wilson (drums)