Jazz is about more than soloing. The real meat of the music is in the collective interplay of the ensemble, the responses of one musician to what another has just done, all in real time: this is happening right now. You're not going to find a more fascinating demonstration of unique musical communication than Days Before and After, the new CD from the Andrew Rathbun-Owen Howard Quintet. Both saxophonist Rathbun and drummer Howard are mainstays of the New York jazz sceneRathbun by way of Torontoand both are fine composers. What's remarkable is how compatible their compositions are; there is neither excessive sonic dissimilarity nor discernible difference in quality between their material.
The quintet's filled out by bassist John Hebert and guitarists Ben Monder and Toronto ringer Geoff Youngtwo guitarists? It's an accomplishment in itself that such a lineup could avoid making a guitar album, no matter who the ostensible leaders of the group might be. But Monder and Young are acutely sensitive players, and they, Howard and Hebert combine synergetically, even alchemically on this session, giving Rathbun a perfect and endlessly absorbing environment for his tenor and soprano work.
Rathbun's got a unaffected, plangent tone on both tenor and soprano sax; he's got a clear-minded thematic precision in his soloing that makes a perfect contrast to the other four musicians, who seem to separate, shift, then dartingly reform, like schools of tropical fish in the ocean. After Rathbun's tenor solo on his composition "Darkness Before Light, listen to the way everyone changes time and accompaniment for Monder's solo, which starts out percussively, like steel drumsYoung playing volume swells while Howard and Hebert ebb and flow, tying rhythmic knotsthen ramps up into pointillistic melody. Howard's a drummer of considerable complexity but he manages to make the most thorny pattern sound open and airy; you wouldn't find it tricky until you tried to find the "one.
Howard's piece "Forward Motian, his tribute to drummer Paul Motian, shows how far this band can go. It begins with Howard playing a circular pattern using all of his kitkick drum gloriously audiblewhile Hebert plays a slow, ominous, ascending bass line. Rathbun plays modally on tenor with Young and Monder's simultaneous, choppy comping alongside. Monder adds controlled feedback that turns into his solo, the band lurching forward into a slow, march-of-doom pattern, reminiscent of fellow NYC group Sonic Youthbefore Rathbun restates the original theme of the song, now sounding somehow altered, experienced, even shell-shocked. Above reproach.
The rest of the CD is of similar quality. "Nomad is a Howard-penned piece with a world music, Arabic feel, buoyed by Hebert's bass vamp and showcasing Rathbun's majestic, octave-spanning tenor. Rathbun's "Hinge is a textural gem, with piping soprano over warm, chordal guitars: very ECM.
There's so much good music coming out of New York lately that it can be somewhat overwhelming. That said, one can't do better than Days Before and After; let's hope Rathbun and Howard keep this band together.
1. Darkness Before Light 2. Missing the Sea 3. Forward Motian 4. Life as Crystals 5. The Whole Enchilada 6. There Will Come Soft Rains 7. Nomad 8. Hiccup 9. Hinge
Andrew Rathbun: tenor, soprano sax; Owen Howard: drums; John Hebert: bass; Ben Monder: electric guitar; Geoff Young: acoustic, electric, fretless guitars
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