Comprised of a half dozen of the most impressive bandleaders of the mid-eighties post-loft jazz scene, The Leaders made a number of fine recordings for Black Hawk, Black Saint and Sunnyside before quietly disbanding at the end of the eighties. Conceived as a more conventionally traditional project than their usual efforts, the original Leaders was an intriguing hybrid; free jazz masters playing in a primarily straight-ahead context. With a roster that included avant-garde luminaries like Lester Bowie, Arthur Blythe and Famoudou Don Moye, it brought an edge to mainstream swing, providing a marked contrast to the then nascent young lions marketing phenomenon.
Now, two decades later, the original founders, multi-instrumentalist Chico Freeman and bassist Cecil McBee, have reformed the group with an all new line-up. Once again an assortment of notable bandleaders, this version has a more mainstream pedigree. Although the former incarnation of the super-group leaned further out than this one, the change in personnel doesn't affect its ability to swing.
Spirits Alike displays the new line-up's straight-ahead approach. With the passing of Lester Bowie and Arthur Blythe in ill health, the group now features trumpeter Eddie Henderson and altoist Bobby Watson on the front line. The caustic bite of Blythe's alto is supplanted by Watson's slippery, high-wire phrasing, while Bowie's irreverent asides are replaced by Henderson's muted Milesian flourishes and incisive, brassy exultations.
Pianist Kirk Lightsey's spot is filled by relative newcomer Fred Harris, whose approach is not as classically effusive as Lightsey's, but swings just as well, as his solo on his own tune, "The Ascended One," attests. The drum chair, formerly occupied by Art Ensemble of Chicago percussionist Famoudou Don Moye, is now anchored by the legendary Billy Hart, who drives the group with locomotive force and sensitive dynamics. Freeman and McBee play with the same drive and dedication as they did two decades ago. Freeman sticks close to the vest, still wielding a muscular tone on tenor, and contributes some of the most adventurous writing on the album.
"Deep Pockets" and the title track hint at the turbulent collective improvisation of bygone days, tempered with mature restraint. "Evolution" showcases the rhythm section's astute listening skills, offering further proof of Billy Hart's percussive mastery. "Lullaby For Imka" and "Consequence" display the sextet's hand at gorgeous balladry, while "Alas Poor John" plies a funky, tropical groove. While the new line-up might lack some of the primal bite of the original, The Leaders soldiers on, still swinging mightily two decades later.
Personnel: Chico Freeman: tenor saxophone, soprano saxophone; Bobby Watson: alto saxophone; Eddie Henderson: trumpet; Fred Harris: piano; Cecil McBee: bass; Billy Hart: drums.