Sean Nowell is a virtual unknown who became known to me virtually through the socio-musical phenomenon known as MySpace. Nowell and his quintet have succeeded at melding, morphing and mixing the best of Blue Note-era small-group nirvana with the Headhunters' pocket and vibe, evolving it to right now. This is not merely attributable to great writing and playing, but innovative arranging between the dual horn attack of tenorist Nowell and altoist Travis Sullivan, as padded and parried by Art Hirahara's ultra-hip Rhodes. A hard -driving horn man from Alabama, Nowell's now a New Yorker and member of Sullivan's Bjorkestra, of which this entire unit is a scintillating subset.
A modern sinewy dual horn line kick-starts "Pale," abetted by Joe Abbatantuono's modern rock beats and bassist Danny Zanker's slinky and bomb-like acoustic accents. This is supplanted by what I'll call Nowell and Sullivan's "home sound," one that could be conjured by a front-line of saxophonists Stanley Turrentine and Sonny Criss until it starts to dance around each other in a motivic counter-melody so tightly written and arranged it sounds improvised.
Nowell's first solo shows his big-tenor influences and up-to-the minute chops, punctuated by tasteful over- blowing running perfectly counter to the gutbucket jam, then growing Brecker-esquely dense. Sullivan doesn't wait for the bar line on a perfectly executed handoff, while showing he's an equally gifted soloist, adding Criss-like breathiness, classic alto rasp and finally, modern angularity to the mix. Hirahara seamlessly runs first into atmospheric territory, abetted by Abbatantuono's stops and starts. The drummer's dexterity on the bell of the ride and snare propels the Rhodes man to elasticize the funk into uncharted territory before bringing it home linearly and exiting on a new motif.
San Francisco transplant Hirahara is the session's most "out-of-nowhere" revelation, so potent a soloist and colorist it seems at times as though it's his date, as on the sultry "Resolution of Self," similarly centered on unison, then separately supportive dual horn lines. Changing chords on each note of the latter portion of the horn line, the Rhodes urgently recontextualizes each second of their freefall. Horns drop out to leave a Rhodes trio. Hirahara counterbalances a restatement of the head, right against left, languidly linearizing into a solo growing more rhythmically precise, finally allowing slower lines to overrun each other with vintage sustain. The set's catchiest number, using four bars of five and containing two notes each, it seems a rip-off of a classic horn line, but isn't. The pre-ending motif is particularly effective as the two notes restate, but climb in a simple scalar fashion seducing you into a smoky sixties vibe.
Another highlight is "Inner Universe," Nowell's drum 'n' bass-driven rearrangement of a song by Anime composer Yoko Kanno that serves as a shreddingly satisfying modern tribute.
Tempting as it is to say Nowell's concept, and the fresh-faced cast assembled here to translate it, portends great things, it's untruethey've already delivered one.
Personnel: Sean Nowell: tenor sax; Travis Sullivan: alto sax; Art Hirahara: fender rhodes; Danny Zanker: bass; Joe Abbatantuono: drums.