Most of the best composers, like Ellington and Shorter, have also been great players. The two processes are mutually reinforcing. Jeremy Pelt's Identity shows him to be on this two-fold path. It's all original material performed with Frank LoCrasto on keyboards, Vicente Archer on bass, and Eric McPherson on drumsall on a par of excellence with Pelt in their playing. This particular group formed just recently, yet it already has sharp rapport. If it stays together, it'll likely become one of the better groups out there.
Pelt pulls off the difficult trick of being simultaneously cerebral and inviting. His tone strikes a warm balance between brightness and suffusion. The more aggressive tunes comprise the stronger material on Identity, and Pelt doesn't bury the lead, opening with his strongest track, "Re-Invention." The tune is bothcontrapuntal and harmonic, yet without traditional comping from LoCrasto. The introspective, darkly enigmatic melody is made of simple gestures taking on cumulative meanings throughout the sixteen-bar form. The writing recalls '60s-period Wayne Shorter. Yet, as with Shorter, the music follows its own internal logic. It also strikes a balance between a "free" feeling and closed form, which may be the highest level of craft for the modern improviser. LoCrasto's counterpoint acts like an oblique, reluctant shadow with a mind of its own. Both Pelt and LoCrasto use ideas from the melody, and each other, to inform their solos with mindfully small gestures and build larger concepts.
"Seek," "Suspicion," and "Angular" are the other relatively aggressive tunes. While they don't push boundaries, they share a spirit with many current artists exploring rhythmic complexity and form while maintaining swing and drive. The musicians incorporate occasional odd structures and rhythmic displacements into the blowing sections instead of discarding them as compositional quirks.
Despite the appearance of some special guests on Identity, the quartet is central. Archer's turn on "Celestial" is a highlight, as is McPherson's blowing over the vamp at the end of "Suspicion." As for the relaxed, slower material on Identity, it's often beautiful but occasionally so introspective as to implode under its own weight. An exception is the engaging "Haiku," where Pelt and LoCrasto both make deeply personal statements while recalling two of the greatest ballad interpreters on their instruments.
The media affair regarding Pelt is well underway. Identity may lead some critics to celebrate the arrival of the "future of jazz," or cause others to feel compelled to refute such claims. But the reality is not so black and white. Those who are preoccupied with finding an artist to label the "future of jazz" can't see the trees for the forest. Innovation is sometimes incremental and often not easy to detect. It's all a continuum. We need faith that the pursuit of excellence supplies the energy to keep jazz moving forward. Innovation need not always be a "change of the century." It often hides in the shadows, tucked into a brilliant corner like a precocious child smiling to himself with a secret. There may well be such a child tucked into Identity.
Personnel: Jeremy Pelt: trumpet and flugelhorn; Frank LoCrasto: keyboards; Vicente Archer: bass; Eric
McPherson: drums. Special guests: Myron Walden: saxophone and bass clarinet; Warren
Wolf: vibes; Mike Moreno: guitar.