It's wonderful for an artist to find a group so emotionally linked to his or her conception that the music takes on a greater significance than what's on the written page. Denver-based tenor saxophonist Fred Hess found such a group for his previous release, The Long and Short of It , a record that took his smoky tone and unmistakable roots in Lester Young and brought them forward into a new century. Thankfully the rest of the grouptrumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Matt Wilsonfelt the same way, and they're back for a second go 'round with Hess' latest release, Crossed Paths , which may not make any major leaps forward but consolidates and expands upon the clear simpatico shared by the quartet.
Once again Hess' writing leans towards linear compositions that provide a framework and a starting point from which the group can expound. The title track starts with an ambling swing that is largely implied, rather than overtly stated, by Wilson's lightly broken-up approach, with Hess and Miles snaking their way through the lengthy theme and Filiano straddling the fence between being a third part of the front line and synching with Wilson to keep the rhythm moving forward. The solo section may appear to be a free-form excursion, but it's really an expansion of the theme, with everyone soloing in tandem while managing to maintain a sense of forward motion.
In some ways Hess is a more polite alternative to Ornette Coleman's early-'60s groups with trumpeter Don Cherry. But while Cherry was well-enough versed in the tradition, Coleman was less so. Hess, on the other hand, clearly looks back in fondness, but then takes that view and twists it at a sharper angle, revealing new perspectives much like looking through a kaleidoscope. And while he leans towards clever contrapuntal work between himself and Miles, there are moments of pure unadulterated freedom, as on "Mystery Woman" and "The Clef's Visit Grandmas." Although there is form to the latter, it is somewhat masked by the languid manner in which Hess and Miles deliver the more abstruse theme. At first glance "Untying the Knot" may appear to be formless, but the structure unravels, not in equal measures, but in uneven spurtssometimes returning to a previous motif the way one would return to the portion of a knot that has begun to loosen up.
Elsewhere the approach is more straightforward. "On Perry St." revolves around a propulsive rhythm by Wilson and Filiano, but it demonstrates the kind of multifaceted approach that was so characteristic of Hess' writing on The Long and Short of It. Stricter form gives way to broader extemporization and yet, through it all, there is a broader sense of focus that differentiates it from other recordings operating in the same general space.
Crossed Paths represents another fine recording from Hess, who, with The Long and Short of It , finally received greater national attention. This new recording should go a long way to confirming his well-deserved reputation.
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Personnel: Fred Hess (tenor saxophone), Ron Miles (trumpet), Ken Filiano (bass), Matt Wilson (drums)