For years tenor saxophonist Ned Otter polished his jazz craft as a protege of sax man George Coleman. Indeed, the first CD issued on Otter's Two and Four Recordings was Coleman's Danger High Voltage. Otter played alongside his mentor on that disc, and Coleman joined him on the younger player's debut, So Little Time (Two and Four, 2002). So well had Otter learned his lesson from the master that it was often hard to tell who was playing—teacher or pupil—as the solos unfolded. With Powder Keg Otter slips out of the his elder's shadow with a voice that has taken on a more personal distinction.
The sound is something of a welcome throwback, rooted in the Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, Hank Mobley Blue Note recordings of the early sixties. Straight-ahead jazz, swinging on the up-tempo jaunts, bubbling mid-tempo, and smoldering in the ballads.
On this mostly quintet outing with a couple of quartet tunes, Otter is joined by two seasoned veterans. Pianist Harold Mabern has been called the world's greatest accompanist, and he proves it throughout this set. Tasteful, low key yet sparklingly incisive when the improvisational demand calls for it, his solos just jump. On Wes Montgomery's mid-tempo "Road Song" he sounds like diamond ice cubes in a glass of something clear and bubbly.
The second veteran is on the disc is drummer Billy Higgins. Powder Keg is one of the late timekeeper's last recording appearances, and he went out on top of his game, weaving complex textures and using the brushes to full effect on "I Get Sentimental Over Nothing," a lesser-known Nat King Cole vehicle. It's a gorgeous ballad, and Otter makes me think of Ellington tenor man Ben Webster here, with just a hint of rasp at the end of his phrases, aided by Higgins' brush work.
Trumpeter Tom Kirkpatrick and bassist Dennis Irwin round out the lineup. Kirkpatick has a very personal sound on his horn. His notes have a malleable feel to them, a slight blurring, as if his trumpet's alloy contains a strain of a softer, duller metal, like platinum. It's a sound that—along with his easy fluidity of ideas—compliments Otter's crisper approach. Bassist Irwin's work is solid, setting the groove without fanfare mostly, until the closer, "Jeannine," where he gets pugnacious on us, stepping out for a solo in front of a comping Mabern, with just the right touch of attitude. This twelve minute cooker serves as the disc's highlight, but that's a matter of taste and/or small degree. This is a start-to-finish first rate set of straight-ahead jazz.
Did I mention the sound? Rudy Van Gelder. Enough said?