Here is unsung reedman Anthony Ortega in the most stripped-down of contexts: in contrast to the nonet that he recorded with on 1994's Neuf, and even to earlier quartet recordings, here he appears in a bare trio setting. There is a piano and drums but no bassist, and one is not missed: Mike Wofford's piano playing has enough body, and Ortega's saxophone enough rhythmic flight, for the bass not to be missed.
So here is Anthony Ortega, a calling-card showing off everything he has always done and can still do, perhaps better than ever, in his Seventies. Everything, that is, except perhaps his considerable compositional ability, for here he only contributes one number: the title track. Instead, his improvisational originality is the focus of this disc, which is heavy on standards, including two takes of the workhorse "What's New" and one of the saxophonist's proving ground, "Body and Soul."
Ortega whispers and croons. He soars and shouts. He may have the most varied, the most comprehensive sound of any modern alto player. Large portions of this disc make it a surprise coming from Hat Hut Records, a label which has produced a large amount of outstanding music, much (if not most) of which eschews conventional harmonic formulations and structures. But of course, so does Ortega: he manages through some musical alchemy to set aside and transcend traditional harmonies while in the very act of affirming them. Listen, for example, to "Body and Soul." It is taken slowly and sparingly, with an almost halting gait; yet an end-of-phrase filigree become the basis for the next phrase, and soon we're in territory untrodden by Hawk or Trane or, indeed, anyone.
Ortega does that sort of thing all through this disc. Close listening reveals a man who simply sees more possibilities in the harmonies than most players do, and who is able to use multiphonics to heighten his emotional effect without disrupting the musical material at hand. Close listening reveals a master at work.
And Wofford's piano, by the way, is no less enlightening. He seems to be a perfect match for Ortega, for he has a great respect for the tunes, plus the ability to stretch them to fit the present need. (And they don't break.) An outstanding performance.
Personnel: Anthony Ortega, as, ts (on "Island of Trolls"); Mike Wofford, p; Joe LaBarbera, d.