Leave it to Luther continues veteran alto saxophonist Luther Thomas’ fruitful association with CIMP. The label’s trademark living presence sound accentuates the tart and sweet sounds of Thomas and guitarist Ethan Mann, respectively, and catches every breath of Cliff Barbaro’s quicksilver cymbal work. Brian Smith’s basslines lurk and lead. As the band veers from free to swing and back, Smith’s playing defines the changes.
On the title track, Barbaro plays an uncannily melodic percussion intro before the band enters on Smith’s questioning theme. Thomas finds a tremendous amount to say and proceeds to fill in the sparse landscape. Mann plays clear crisp notes and chords that accompany and coax. Not that Thomas needs coaxing. He blisters through an extended solo, his smearing note clusters contrasted with Mann’s uncluttered considerations. Brian Smith keeps quick time while creating musical wonders. Barbaro stays in the cymbals letting Smith drive the band. After a brief pause the band snaps into a breezy cosmopolitan riff, out of which Luther creates an elaborate travelogue.
The band then takes on the first of three compositions by Danish composer/musician Hugh Steinmetz. “Belona” has a tight ensemble straight-ahead bop feel, with Thomas taking his time before he vaults through the measures. Thomas and Mann play the ballad “Tatjana” in unison until Thomas flies over the wall. Mann continues the thread of the ballad as the other three switch gears. After a brisk run, Thomas hits the brake and the ensemble returns to the moody theme.
The quartet makes three inspired classic cover choices, beginning with “Body and Soul.” Luther solos an intro then affectionately teases the theme as he beautifully duets with Mann. They play Dizzy’s “Groovin’ High” straight, with Thomas negotiating an authentic be-bop tangle of notes solo. Mann keeps it open and roomy, while Smith seems at home in the groove.
Smith’s “Luther’s Theme” begins an easy going amphorus drift before coalescing into a whirlwind of activity. Thomas’ solo gains in speed and intensity, then settles back down until Smith kicks it from below with an enthusiastic bass run. Steinmetz’ “Nova Zembla” abandons the bop pretense of the earlier pieces, giving Thomas explosive leeway.
Thomas’ “Up South” takes a slightly broken up-tempo bop blues and swings it hard. The quartet sizzles on this sweaty workout. Monk’s “Round Midnight” caps the session. Without Barbaro, the trio plays the chestnut somewhat out of phase, but with reverence.
Leave It to Luther shows the Luther Thomas Quartet fluent in all aspects of jazz music, and adept at weaving them all into a single piece organically.
Personnel: Luther Thomas, alto sax; Ethan Mann, guitar; Brian Smith, bass; Cliff Barbaro, drums.