How we rate: our writers tend to review music they like within their preferred genres.
Upon hearing pianist Xavier Davis’s "First Steps into Reality," which opens this album and provides its title, some might voice familiar objections. "Wait, these guys play tradition-bound hard bop and wear jackets and ties. It’s just another crop of Young Lions. Nothin’ new about it." Well, keep listening. David Weiss, founder, leader, and trumpeter of The New Jazz Composers Octet, is onto something, and it’s far more than a neocon nostalgia trip.
Compositionally speaking, Xavier Davis and alto saxophonist Myron Walden are the stars here. Walden pens the mellow yet challenging "I’ll Always Love You" and the multilayered "Untitled in A flat Minor." In addition to "First Steps," Davis contributes an harmonically ambitious waltz titled "When the Spirit Hits," as well as the quasi-"out" closer, "Liberation." It’s a logical progression: We take our "First Steps" a bit carefully, with a classic sound that recalls Birth of the Cool, and we proceed step by step toward our "Liberation," taking greater risks in the hope of greater rewards.
Bassist Dwayne Burno’s "I’m A Comin’ Home" begins and ends in ballad fashion with a chorale-like minor melody, morphing into a medium slow minor blues for the solos. Tenorist Gregory Tardy blows with restrained, elegant fire, and the late James Farnsworth, to whom the album is dedicated, takes his turn on baritone. Weiss’s trumpet solos are redoubtable on "Tribute to the Elders," "First Steps," and especially "D Minor Mint," a Freddie Hubbard composition arranged by Weiss and the one non-original of the session.
Other performance highlights include Burno’s adventurous yet solid accompaniment on "I’ll Always Love You," drummer Nasheet Waits’s inspired interaction with Davis on the same tune, and Andrew Williams’s fluid trombone solos on "First Steps" and "D Minor Mint." Someone plays flute on Walden’s "Untitled," but no flute credit is given—my hunch is that it’s Walden himself. Jimmy Greene and Dave Rickenberg replace Tardy and Farnsworth, respectively, on three tracks. Greene turns in fine solos on "D Minor Mint" and "When the Spirit Hits."
Ironically, it’s trumpeter/leader Weiss who turns in the least noteworthy chart, the hard bop grab-bag "Tribute to the Elders." Granted, the title alone tells us that Weiss was not out to foment revolution. On the whole, however, Weiss has done his part to keep jazz moving forward. This album, and this octet, are feathers in his cap for sure.