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Jim Brenan 11: 50 / 50

Jack Bowers By

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A popular jazz magazine once had (and perhaps still has) a list of CDs in most issues labeled "beyond category." 50 / 50, the debut (?) recording by Canadian saxophonist / composer Jim Brenan's eleven-piece ensemble, would fit quite comfortably therein. It is as hard to ascertain Brenan's frames of reference as it is to unravel his game plan. That's not to say the music on offer isn't ambitious or interesting, as that is certainly not the case. The melodies are generally bright and engaging, as are the rhythmic patterns. Within Brenan's diversified framework the ensemble is unflagging, the soloists perceptive and assured. Consonance aside, perhaps that is all that can or should be asked of any musical enterprise.

Clearly, Brenan's viewpoint is his own, the outcome fresh and original. He uses every component of the ensemble to good effect, painting with broad and colorful strokes that enhance each number's over-all import. When the group is called upon to swing it does so with abandon, even as it shows self-control when the occasion demands. That is a tribute to its musical acumen as well as to Brenan's firm hand at the reins. The mettle is tested from the get-go with "Tigers Milk," a shuffle-cum-samba whose gentle opening and solo by trombonist (and brother?) Craig Brenan presage a more dynamic midsection and coda amplified by Jim Brenan's tenor sax, Chris Andrew's rippling Fender Rhodes and stalwart timekeeping by drummer Jamie Cooper and percussionist Raul Tabera.

Cooper is front and center again, as is Jim Brenan, on the hard-driving "Jocasta," whose hurried tempo sets the stage for the more moderate "Empress," an easygoing charmer on which Andrew shines once more at the keyboard. "Eleven Eleven" settles nicely into a medium groove underscored by a charming melody, rich harmonies and crisp solos by alto Mike Gardner, Craig Brenan and the leader on tenor sax. Once again, drummer Cooper plays a prominent role in guiding the piece to its persuasive conclusion. Funk and soul are front and center on the assertive "Colossal Suite," which undergoes a delightful up-tempo makeover in midstream, then pulls back for Sean Craig's free-wheeling alto solo and some brooding passages by bassist Rubim de Toledo and the ensemble before Andrew and Cooper wrap things up on a more emphatic note.

"Fant-o-Max" is basically more of the same, its undulating rhythms accentuated by Cooper and Andrew (again on Fender) before the ensemble adds a powerful exclamation point. "Hiding Place," a pleasant ballad set to a funky beat with more admirable pianisms by Andrew, leads to the irrepressible finale, "Ozark Mountain Cougar Fightin,'" whose ardent solos are delivered by Craig on alto and Jim Brenan on tenor. Before closing, a word about the album's title, 50 / 50, which denotes the fact that roughly half the members of the ensemble (it couldn't be exactly half) are from Edmonton, Alberta (the leader's hometown), the others from neighboring Calgary. Or, as Candide might have said, the best of both possible worlds. Be that as it may, the team works well together, making 50 / 50 a well-groomed and largely commendable venture from start to finish.

Track Listing: Tigers Milk; Jocasta; Empress; Eleven Eleven; Colossal Suite; Fant-o-Max; Hiding Place; Ozark Mountain Cougar Fightin’.

Personnel: Jim Brenan: leader, composer, arranger, tenor, soprano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet; Jim Murray: trumpet; Sergio Rodriguez: trumpet; Sean Craig: alto sax; Mike Gardner: alto sax; Sarah Matheson-Nadeau: baritone sax, flute; Craig Brenan: trombone; Carsten Rubeling: trombone; Chris Andrew: Fender Rhodes, clavinet; Rubim de Toledo: bass; Jamie Cooper: drums; Raul Tabera: percussion (1).

Title: 50 / 50 | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Death Defying Records

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