Heavenlyif not very far outsextet sides are Planet Jazz's saucer of well-steeped black tea. Just the bracing tonic one might expect from Sharp Nine, purveyor of intelligence and taste in small-band jazz for a decade.
From the first tightly scored, three-voiced chorus, which swings smoothly through drum breaks on a tune waggishly entitled "Mommy, Mommy No!, you can tell there's some underlying story here, and it happens to go beyond the weird titles. In this case, the group is a band formed by and playing in memory of its original founder, drummer Johnny Ellis. Ellis' original charts manifest a blend of creative tension with forward drive. Three relaxed tracks are well-borrowed from various erasa melodic Latin-esque groove by trumpeter Charlie Shavers ("Dawn on the Desert ), written for the similarly provocative chamber-jazz John Kirby Sextet; pianist Hampton Hawes' pleasing chromatic waltz "Sonora ; and the closing easygoing blues collaboration by Ellington/Hodges ("Dual Highway ).
These delicately filigreed ensembles spin out with the brilliant tensile strength of platinum wire; solos are succinct and retro (read: timeless, not faceless), yet informed and impassioned. Planet Jazz is foremost a well-oiled ensemble, secondarily a vehicle for soloists, who do their level best to buoy and sustain the admirably crafted pieces. Why not? The sextet has been a unit since 1991the lone replacement being drummer Joe Strasser for Ellis, who died too young at 44 in 1999.
This release smacks not of "memorial": the playing is blithe and upbeat, and Ellis' zoomorphic preoccupation with quadrupeds underlines the wacky, carefree moods evoked in his dreamy yet grounded charts. Beautifully done!
Personnel: Grant Stewart: tenor saxophone; Joe Magnarelli: trumpet, flugelhorn; Peter Bernstein: guitar; Spike Wilner: piano; Neal Miner: bass; Joe Strasser: drums.