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Robert Hurst: BoB: a Palindrome

Chris M. Slawecki By

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The roll call of great bass players from Detroit includes Ron Carter, Paul Chambers and Doug Watkins. Robert Hurst, another Motor City musician, has for the past several years made a compelling case for his name on that list.

Hurst picked up the bass at age 14 and was soon performing with Detroit trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, who had previously been a member of Ray Charles' band. Hurst subsequently met drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts, who invited the bassist to join him in the rhythm section for the Wynton Marsalis band, where Hurst stayed for three years and seven recordings. Hurst later worked with Wynton's brother Branford Marsalis, including playing in The Tonight Show band under Branford's direction. While working on this Show, Hurst found time to write arrangements and play bass for Willie Nelson, Boyz II Men and Barbra Streisand. He's also served as bassist in Chris Botti's and Diana Krall's touring and recording bands.

Even with all this sidework, BoB: a palindrome is Hurst's sixth CD as a leader, and fourth release on his own Bebob label. It reunites Hurst with trumpeter Belgrave and drummer Watts ("I have been partners in time with Brotha Jeff 'Tain' Watts for nearly 30 years," BoB notes), and adds pianist Robert Glasper, percussionist Adam Rudolph and reed master Bennie Maupin (another Detroit native). Hurst's notes also explain that he prepared each composition like Duke Ellington would—"with the specific tones and particular talents of the musicians in mind."

What you think of BoB may depend upon which parts you hear. Belgrave's flugelhorn sings "Big Queen" (composed by Hurst for his wife Jill) light and soft, while Hurst leads the rhythm section in a dynamic yet singular, unified voice. "Little Queen" (for Hurst's daughter Jillian) sings just as beautifully through Maupin's soprano sax.

"Middle Passage Suite" is a three-part meditation inspired by Middle Passage (Atheneum Publishers, 1990), Charles Johnson's historic novel about the final voyage of a slave ship in 1830. Each part expands in scope and vision, from two to nearly 13 minutes. "Part II: For Those of Us That Didn't Make It" grows from a small brooding piano figure into an exotic, dark sound of percussion, bass and trumpet. Watts quickly detonates the quiet bass solo that opens "Part III: For Those of Us Still Here" into a landslide of tumbling rhythm; Maupin's soprano soars, caught in the updraft of Hurst's tumult. "Middle Passage Suite" writes an adventure as deep and far-out as any Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders travelogue.

BoB's two closing tunes wrestle the jazz-funk monster down: Hurst's bass thrashes and flails "Indiscreet in da Street" like a raging Charles Mingus; the rhythm section plays so strong that it nearly overwhelms this tune, which seems to smolder down to ash as it fades. "Jamming—a.k.a. Ichabod" kicks out an old-school New Orleans funk party, as Hurst's bass and Watts's snare drum stretch their shared pulses out into elastic time, informed by both James Brown and Miles Davis—more accurately, informed by James Brown through Miles Davis. "Jamming" is a powerful ending to a great set.

BoB: a palindrome was actually recorded in 2001, and some tracks were originally written as far back as 1985. Even so, it sounds like it could have been recorded tomorrow.

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