In the same elite class as his recent releases on Sharp Nine and Venus, David Hazeltine’sBlues Quarters, Volume I
(Criss Cross), conveys the full range of his considerable talent. For this recording Hazeltine utilizes a quartet consisting of his piano, tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, bassist Dwayne Burno, and drummer Joe Farnsworth. All three sideman are frequently part of his creative orbit, and their familiarity engenders an acute rapport even as each member pursues a distinct voice within the music. As always, Hazeltine chooses material wisely and with his cohorts in mind, including three originals, a couple of bop standards, arresting treatments of two American Popular Songs, and one composition from the pen of Alexander.
The set opens with “Naccara,” a bright theme by Hazeltine taken at a brisk tempo. After stating the melody, Alexander plays with all of the drive and emotion that attracted widespread attention nearly ten years ago, but here the excess has been trimmed as he exhibits poise and the ability to develop his ideas into a tight, coherent statement. Hazeltine’s piano conveys restiveness beneath a polished surface. Spurred by the drummer’s terse accents, he playfully breaks the continuity by inserting an occasional hard, dissonant chord, and varying the length of his phrases. Farnsworth’s turn begins with an artful combination of cymbal splashes and rhythms on the snare and bass drums, which evolve into a shifting array of rudimental-sounding figures broken up by single strokes on the tom toms, creating the effect of someone stumbling while frantically trying to move forward.
The sensation of interrupted motion also pervades “Milestones,” with Farnsworth’s bass drum and brushes on the snare instigating a jerky, stop-start feeling which purposefully subverts Alexander’s suave rendition of the tune. Burno starts the string of solos with a brief one that dances over the foundation of Hazeltine’s pert chords. Alexander enters as if stretching after a long night’s sleep and then gradually gets down to business, at first almost casually playing a number of double time passages, then going back and forth between earnest, blues-rooted declarations and rapid fire runs, all the while integrating portions of the melody. Hazeltine initially follows the lead of the bass and drums, producing a nice, even flow before temporarily altering direction by ripping off several sixteen and thirty-second note sallies, settling in to a persuasive groove, then again getting heady. Before the entire band takes the tune out, Farnsworth has the last word with a series of boldly executed four measure breaks. In particular, the second one lingers in memory. As sticks on cymbals create the irregular sound of rain, his bass drum gallops and incessantly pounds against a couple of strokes on the snare; then he nimbly puts things back in order with a brief flourish on the lower tom-tom.
In contrast to the lively cuts that precede it, “Spring Is Here” is taken at a dirge-like tempo with a disposition to match. Alexander has a stark, melancholic take on the tune’s melody, and at the beginning of his second reading Hazeltine’s parade of triplets add a touch of elegance to the gloom. With Burno’s dark musings and Farnsworth’s brushes providing a sparse underpinning, the pianist’s impressionistic solo seems determined to alter the mood without breaking it, at times even becoming frisky. Alexander reprises the tone of his original statement, but with more weight and authority, adding spiraling sixteenth-note phrases that suggest a glimmer of hope in an otherwise somber presentation.
Hazeltine and Alexander play Charlie Parker’s “Cheryl” in unison, and the bounce in their collective step is enhanced by Burno’s springy comments and Farnsworth’s flippant snare and bass drum beats. The leader’s solo is a textbook example of making vital music within the bebop lexicon. He confidently moves forward without creating clutter or leaving anything unresolved, going on a roller coaster ride created by the drummer’s persistent off-the-beat accents chased by a brief single stroke roll. Farnsworth becomes even bolder during Alexander’s muscular turn, adding a rim shot or two to his assault, crashing ride and hi-hat cymbals, without undermining the music’s foundation.