The economic constraints of keeping a jazz ensemble together are such that we've almost seen the disappearance of working bands. That is indeed a grievous situation since the jazz pedigree has so often been marked by historically-important groups. Just consider the Basie and Ellington bands, not to mention the classic John Coltrane Quartet and several premium units under the leadership of Miles Davis, to get an idea of the sorcery inherent in such familial settings. Much credit is therefore due to the group One For All, a powerhouse sextet that evolved out of drummer Joe Farnsworth's regular NYC gigs at Augie's (now called Smoke Jazz Club) and has been active since their 1997 debut on the Sharp Nine label.
Upward and Onward is the group's third disc to date and first for Criss Cross Jazz and what is remarkable, among many other things, is that these extremely busy men, leaders in their own right, still find time to get together for gigs and record dates. Eric Alexander is one of the most in-demand young tenor men on the New York scene, while trumpeter Jim Rotondi, trombonist Steve Davis and pianist David Hazeltine can be found working as estimable sidemen when not leading their own groups. Round it out with bassist Peter Washington, a modern-day Paul Chambers in terms of the number of recordings he's been on, and the seasoned drummer Farnsworth and you have a hard bop superband that just won't quit.
Taking nothing away from its distinguished predecessors, Upward and Onward is far and away the best the group has caught on tape to date. Worth the price of admission alone is Hazeltine's funky "We All Love Eddie Harris," eleven minutes of pure bump and grind, with Alexander demonstrating how effortlessly he can blow in the upper register. The writing from Alexander, Hazeltine, and Davis is especially persuasive, with the latter's "Epitome" a ballad gem that testifies to how artful a writer this gentleman truly is. Another highlight has to be the recovery of Clifford Jordan's "John Coltrane." Not heard of since Jordan first cut it on a rare Strata East date decades ago, it's the type of meaty piece that finds these guys just eating up the changes. Hat's off to whoever suggested bringing this one out of the mothballs, while simultaneously avoiding the billionth take of "Summertime" or "My Funny Valentine" to boot!
On the pure technical side, let it be said that Criss Cross' decision to move their sessions to Brooklyn's Systems Two Studios has meant an improvement in sonics that even surpasses engineer Max Bolleman's already high standards. The holographic impact of the drums alone is simply a marvel, with Farnsworth and Billy Drummond probably having the best "sounds" of any drummers currently being recorded.
As a cure for the "retro" blues, One For All proves that you can have your cake and eat it too. The tradition doesn't have to be stifling as long as you mine it with depth and an individual voice. That, in a nutshell, is what this disc is all about.
Personnel: Eric Alexander- tenor saxophone, Jim Rotondi- trumpet, Steve Davis- trombone, David Hazeltine- piano, Peter Washington- bass, Joe Farnsworth- drums