So-called Young Lions seem pretty toothless these days. Wynton’s playing sideman gigs at the Village Vanguard, a venue he once lorded over (see the exemplary box set on Columbia), and cats like Nicholas Payton and Joshua Redman have largely fallen off the radar of public consciousness. The Zeitgeist seems ripe for new contenders and tenor player Ari Ambrose just might lead the pack. Rather than traffic in hard bop retreads, the saxophonist sets his sights higher. A reverence for the glories of the past tempers an insightful ear cocked toward future challenges to conquer.
One element essential to this sort of strategy is a like-minded band. Ambrose has his bets covered in this regard with Michael Leonhart, Joe Martin and Rick Montalbano. Even with several records under their collective belt this is still a relatively young ensemble, and that freshness feeds directly into the music. Vestiges of Byas and Webster crop up in his tone and phrasing, but there’s also an edge of unpredictability to his sound. Sliding into near micro tonality on the velvet ballad changes of “When Your Lover Has Gone” Ambrose’s tenor adopts a ghostly translucent cast. Leonhart’s lovingly muted brass smears out a gentle counterpoint and Martin’s ensuing bass solo builds at a beautifully sculpted pace. Everything about the track registers as a model of grace and measured poise.
“Ila” radiates avant-garde overtones while still adhering to a solid structural base. Martin’s dour bass bowing weaves with Montalbano’s atmospheric cymbals and malleted toms, prefacing Ambrose’s own somber entrance. The tenor’s solo loses steam after a strong opening section, segueing into a spate of pitch-pointed cries and flutters. But succor comes in the form of Martin’s busy fingers, which pluck out a vacillating harmonic backdrop alongside Montalbano’s traps and Ambrose regains focus through the coalescing momentum. Rollinsesque ingenuity saturates the playing of both horns, with each man reeling off his share of melodic quotes and Leonhart also trading in legato trills.
Benny Golson’s “Along Came Betty,” rendered at a languorous tempo and elongated duration, allows the band even more room for spacious interplay. Ambrose steps forward first, flanked by Leonhart’s lubricious counterpoint and the roles smoothly transpose during the trumpeter’s own solo. Further interjections from the horns punctuate pauses in Martin’s solo, but his fingers plough right on through with an ergonomically sound excursion across his strings. Montalbano gets room to move through a series of highly attentive drum breaks. Leonhart’s “Dollar Shot” bounces along on an infectious highlife-flavored groove, while the venerable standard “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” furthers the mood of accessible exploratory élan.
A rousing reading of Monk’s questionary “Who Knows” closes things out and the quartet demonstrates a convincing affinity for the composer’s angular harmonic antics. Ambrose and his colleagues probably won’t register in the minds of many jazz listeners, but engaging discs like this one suggest that their relative anonymity is almost certainly a temporary ailment.
Steeplechase on the web: http://www.steeplechase.dk
Personnel: Ari Ambrose- tenor saxophone; Michael Leonhart- trumpet; Joe Martin- bass; Rick Montalbano-
drums. Recorded: March 2001.