In a year that has already produced a number of excellent recordings, Mike Pope’s The Lay of the Land may well be one of the best. It’s certainly one of the most exciting new albums this reviewer has heard in a long time. Pope, who excels on both acoustic and electric bass, has surrounded himself with major label talent for this indie label release: both Randy and Michael Brecker make appearances, saxophonist Seamus Blake appears on two tracks; guitarist Mike Stern, bassist John Patitucci, and vibraphonist Joe Locke turn up on one track each; and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts plays on all but two cuts.
All of this star power doesn’t diminish Pope’s talent, nor does it diminish some of the lesser known players, especially the magnificent pianist Henry Hey and drummer Jim White. It was a risk for Pope to put so many heavy hitters on one album – and then not crediting them on the back cover, which means a big surprise for the unknowing jazz fan who picks up this disc – since there was the possibility that such an aggregation of talent might overshadow the album’s leader. And while the album’s personnel rotates from track to track (a quartet on one track, a trio on the next, a duo on still another), the overall effect is far from incoherent. The album is a showcase for Pope’s ability on his instruments, and the revolving groups show the bassist to excellent effect in a variety of settings.
To choose just a few of the highlights from this exceptional disc, Randy Brecker shines on the opener, the dynamic “The First Order of Business,” which is a quartet track with Pope, Hey and Watts. There are some who run screaming from any album that features a Brecker, and those people will miss out on some of Randy Brecker’s most exciting soloing in years. Hey, Pope, and Watts perform as a trio on the brisk “Climate,” another Pope original. Pope and Patitucci double up the bass for the title track, with Pope playing electric while Patitucci anchors the band on acoustic.
Pope and drummer Jim White perform as a duo for a version of “Cherokee,” played by Pope at breakneck speed on electric bass. Again, it was a risky move for Pope, since this performance automatically invites comparison with Jaco Pastorius’s version of Charlie Parker’s “Donna Lee” on Jaco’s debut album. Fortunately, Pope is as distinctive a voice on electric bass as he is on acoustic, and he brings off his performance with brio. Finally, there is the closing track, a decidedly non-flag waving version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” which features Joe Locke on vibes. This performance is pensive, asking as many questions as Jimi Hendrix’s famous barn-burning version of the National Anthem.
Just as Jimi’s performance sought to redefine the concept of “freedom” for a generation lost in confusing times, so too does Pope’s version attempt to reclaim the song for the post-9/11 generation. By sweetly and tastefully couching “freedom” in terms of the jazz musician’s ability to improvise on a familiar melody – creating something familiar, yet entirely new – Pope and company provide a refreshing repudiation of the present administration’s hijacking of patriotism. It is probably the most overtly political statement a jazz musician has made since Max Roach recorded We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, although Pope is very subtle in his protest. It is a magnificent closing to a wonderful album.
Pope’s mixing of acoustic and electric bass on what is essentially a straight-ahead album is also exciting. The variety of musicians from different genres and generations show that the leader isn’t shy about crossing boundaries. In Mike Pope’s music, we get the sense that jazz’s past and future and both found in jazz’s present. It is refreshing to hear such a strong voice coming from such relative obscurity. Pope has made a terrific album, and it is my hope that as many people hear it as possible. In fact, when finishing this disc for the first time, I did something I hadn’t done in ages: I hit play, and listened to it again.
Personnel: Michael Pope, acoustic and electric bass; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Seamus Blake, Michael Brecker,
tenor saxophone; Henry Hey, piano; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Mike Stern, acoustic guitar; John
Patitucci, acoustic bass; Jeff "Tain" Watts, Jim White, drums