Bill McHenry, Reid Anderson and Ben Monder are members of a collective of musicians currently based in Manhattan who have recorded for the Catalonian label Fresh Sounds , representing one of jazz's futures. They're forward thinking, rejecting tradition in their composing and playing, "Downtown" without being so far downtown as the Knit or Tonic, free without being classifiable as avant-garde. Now 31, McHenry brings along a special guest drummer, the 70-plus Paul Motian, for his third release, taking the occasion to make the musical statement that bumps his game up the critical notch to place him firmly in the vanguard of his generation.
Motian's ensembles have made worthwhile investigation of the music's great composers. Fitting then that he's attached himself here to this batch of new compositions by a fresh, new writer brimming with ideas. Intriguing parallels in lineage reveal themselves when you consider that he's worked with Lovano, Frisell and Hadenand now, McHenry, Monder and Anderson.
McHenry's melodies, indeed hooks, run deep and are defined by Clintonesque sensibilities "Keep it Simple, Songsmith." Compare the heads to "Social Unconsciousness" and "Stars," for example. Both consist of ten second loops of simple ascending and descending phrases incorporating catchy note groupings of a triplet with a single note. "Social" emphasizes the triplet while "Stars" emphasizes an almost twinkling single note. McHenry can also turn on the afterburners as a soloist, as evidenced when Anderson's bass line signals his coming out party after duo section between tenor and drums on "Alfombra Magica."
"Idea #1" draws in the listener with McHenry's intro, using phraseology that sounds like a series of snippets clipped from endings of solo statements, as if he just left out their beginnings in his head. Monder shadows the entire melodysparser passages with chord paintings and faster ones doubled with single notesadding haunting harmonization to each phrase. "Two Chords" is full of powerful melodic device, beginning with two single notes corresponding to its two chord harmony, swaying left to right with the more sumptuous melody line seemingly contoured up and down.
"The Hit" comes out in low tones, McHenry shaded by Monder. Anderson's ostinato, then walking bass sets up Monder's solo section, a reverb-drenched linear statement using repeating phrases, adding slight changes to them as a device. Ben's "guitar solo as mini-compositon technique" finds this set of repeating phrases setting up an ascending section, more dramatic due to the context of what preceded it, as is his successive interval-jumping exploration.
McHenry's message is most readily found in "Music Has Meaning." He actually had the presence of mind to assign this the fifth track number, as the beginning of the tune is a series of five long tones that goes on for more than two minutes. These tones are supported by Monder's hydrogen-pumped chords, Anderson's rubbery bass line and Motian's skittering brushes, woven to form a plush harmonic quilt. The five pitches shift in a manner that tugs at the ears and then the spirit. What seems like the tune's turnaround, full of lush life, yields to a single repeated note, falling out of the mix to a pronounced bass ostinato counterpoint figure, Monder adding slapbacked, pressed swaths of chords. The outro is actually the second hook, the same notes of the previous faux turnaround. This isn't just a series of unrelated parts that fit togetherit's one fascinating extended song form, stretched from its original compositional kernel in and out of the ordinary way.
McHenry's name appears annually on Ben Ratliff's "alternative picks" list. Indeed, it's a thrilling alternative to some of that boring old, regular jazz!
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