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Unhinged Sextet: Clarity

David A. Orthmann By

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The mainstream of jazz could use more recordings like Clarity, a recently released venture by the cooperative Unhinged Sextet. On every track there's something genuinely enjoyable and thought provoking going on, yet the disc doesn't suffer from information overload. The sense of excessive exertion, overt athleticism, sanctimonious references to key points of the jazz tradition—not to mention the insular vibe that's part and parcel of so many jazz records—are nowhere to be found. Most importantly, the Sextet sustains a recognizable identity amidst a wide range of moods, tempos, and grooves. That's quite an accomplishment under any circumstances—no less for a group that had never played together before convening in the summer of 2014 for a handful of days of rehearsal and recording.

Chock full of striking melodies, original compositions by five of the group's six members include familiar and somewhat unconventional structures dressed in arrangements that offer stimulating touches from beginning to end. Shout choruses, contrapuntal lines and other devices juice the music without going too far afield. It's clear that a lot of thought had been given to attaining a balance between the written material and improvised solos, primarily by alto saxophonist Will Campbell, tenor saxophonist Matt Olson, trumpeter Vern Sielert, and pianist Michael Kocour, the record's producer. Each one of them sounds comfortable and ably expresses himself within a limited amount of space.

Selecting highlights of a record that is, track-by-track, engrossing and consistently high in quality is something of a fool's errand—but here goes. The relaxed, medium tempo, swing-to-Latin vibe of Kocour's "Far From East," spurred by bassist Jon Hamar and drummer Dom Moio, is enhanced by an arrangement that adds and subtracts layers and textures which employ Olson, Sielert, Campbell, as individuals as well as a section. There's a lot happening—including some counterpoint delightfully running riot over Kocour's carefully structured theme—but everything is written and executed so smoothly that the track coheres and most of the details don't really stand out. The rhythm section deserves special mention for sustaining a deliberate tempo on "Clarity," Hamar's lovely, haunting, gem of a composition. Not interactive in a provocative sense, their input provides just the right amount of enrichment to Olson's reflective solo.

"Squiggles," Kocour's brisk, nimble, whimsical, up-tempo line, makes for a delightful, rousing end to the recording. Abetted by Hamar's and Moio's focused, hard driving support, his solo evokes a cross section of modern jazz pianists (Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Andrew Hill, Cecil Taylor, and Jaki Byard come to mind) without settling into any clearly defined style. Jagged punctuations by two horns and Kocour insistently dig into portions of Olson's and Campbell's solos. Like the rest of the disc, this potent mixture of writing, arranging and performance makes me hope that Clarity is not a one-off, and that the group will find the means to reconvene for live performances and another recording in the near future.

Track Listing: 1. Unhinged; 2. Far From East; 3. Watch Out of the Way; 4. Clarity; 5. Too Deep; 6. Down South; 7. Scout, No Doubt; 8. Leaving Soon; 9. Derecho; 10. Change; 11. Las Palmas; 12. Squiggles

Personnel: Will Campbell: alto saxophone; Matt Olson: tenor saxophone; Vern Sielert: trumpet; Michael Kocour: piano; Jon Hamar: bass; Dom Moio: drums.

Title: Clarity | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: OA2 Records

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