One of the most appealing attributes of jazz is its diversity. Stripes and colors in the music rival the vistas of twirling domed canopies in that classic French musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But with individuality comes an accompanying spectrum of method and quality. Certain players impress with their studied and accomplished techniques. Others emphasize emotional import over superlative prowess. Alto saxophonist Luther Thomas sits comfortably in the latter camp. He’s an energetic player whose enthusiasm occasionally eclipses the scope of his abilities in the hoisting of his own umbrella.
Thomas often steeps his improvisations in stream of consciousness flights of fancy. So much so that the mechanics of music-making sometimes seem of secondary importance. His catalog is consequently a motley assemblage, pocked by extended temporal lapses and veering stylistic jumps. CIMP stepped in several years ago, and since then the label has served as a mouthpiece for his work, in much the same way that the Eremite label has rekindled Jemeel Moondoc’s career. Thomas trods terrain that is at once familiar and invitingly revamped.
Previous CIMP sessions have touched on Thomas’ reverence for jazz history through his clever readings of bop standards. A trio of evergreens graces the current program, starting with an economical jaunt through “Body and Soul.” The piece pairs Thomas’ lushly-toned sax and Mann’s ghostly guitar in a contemplative tandem. Smith adds upright bass to the action on a trio rundown of “Round Midnight.” Dizzy’s “Groovin’ High” completes the triology and the full quartet has obvious fun sculpting the classic chord changes in their own image and at a surprisingly relaxed tempo.
Very little of the funky R&B Luther of the '70s floats to the surface on most of the disc’s tracks. His tone and method of voicing on alto sound different as well, emphasizing a more fluid sense of phrasing and a markedly pared down vibrato. His approach is so lithesome in places that it almost sounds like a freer equivalent of the Cool stereotypes ascribed to '50s west coast jazz white guys. There are also moments where emotion outlaps precision and his lines spill out with obvious insouciance toward clearly defined harmonic structures. It’s a tendency that is particularly noticeable on “Leave it to Luther,” a fifteen-minute plus excursion that wriggles through a variety of tonal tributaries without much regard for thematic resolution.
There’s also a curious nature to the program in that three of the pieces are attributed to one Hugh Steinmetz (an alias of Luther’s?) while bassist Brian Smith contributes two more that directly reference the leader in their titles. “Up South,” the lone credited Thomas composition, makes up less than a tenth of the disc’s total running time. These mysteries are most likely just facets of Thomas’ eccentric persona and his desire to keep his listeners guessing. Enjoyment rests in part on a willingness to embrace these peculiarities. Those willing to do so will likely find this disc worth returning to on a regular basis.