Despite the almost thirty-five year absence of a dominant figure, jazz is still evolving. While the big institutions of jazz sniff along after retro trends and media darlings, small labels, small clubs and individually minded musicians are developing the music separate from any clear mainstream. The results of this Balkanization of jazz have been uneven, but now and then a recording surfaces to remind you that the direction is still forward. Gualala, the debut CD from New York multi-instrumentalist Tom Christensen, is just such a recording.
From the opening track, the title cut, you know you're in for something different: an oboe solos over congas and bass, with a clarinet ostinato. It's the clear thinking of jazz musicians in control of harmony, rhythm, melody, but the colors are as delicate and pure as any Julliard chamber ensemble.
Later, those nice boys from the chamber group morph into burning tenor players. The post-Coltrane tenor school, sometimes called "Go-tenor" around New York, is here with all of its intensity and seriousness of purpose. It seems, though, that even the disciples of Steve Grossman and Dave Liebman are evolving. "Tangoed Web" gives the tenors a chance to blow their brains out at full-Liebs, yet Christensen twists the tale with a dual tenor shout chorus that both lauds and skewers the saxophone language of the last thirty years. It's done with an ironic affection you won't hear on that hallmark of Go-tenor duals, Elvin Jones: Live at the Lighthouse.
The music on Gualala is all Christensen originals, but it gives the feeling of a group conception. In fact, it's difficult at any moment to identify a leader. The band is so supple, so self-aware that it can dart and turn through colors and shadings with an almost spooky group consciousness.
Christensen has reworked the tools of jazz ensemble writing. Melodies sprout counterpoint or become backgrounds which grow into solos; phrases breathe or turn or end unexpectedly; tempos and harmonies shift, marked only by subtle changes in Takeishi's percussion. This is detailed music, wary of clich' and played with complete control virtuoso performances on oboe, English horn, bass clarinet, sopranino sax, but it's virtuosity with a purpose. From the serene reeds at the end of "Waiting Is" to the muscular tenors of "Or Not" and "The Cats of Ulthar," skill serves art rather than ego.
You won't hear these guys at Lincoln Center or on a PBS special, but Gualala is the real thing: the living art, riding the same unconscious tide that pushed jazz through Pops and Bird and Trane a tradition evolving before your ears.
Personnel: Tom Christensen, tenor & soprano sax, oboe & English horn; Charles Pillow, tenor &
sopranino sax, clarinet & bass clarinet, oboe; Satoshi Takeishi, percussion; Ben Allison,
bass; Doug Weiss, bass.