These days taking a place in the modern mainstream of jazz is no simple matter. A single-minded devotion to a handful of influences, to name one pitfall, does not bode well for finding a singular voice in a musical tradition that places a premium on individuality. There is an abundance of young, technically proficient musicians who can’t seem to escape the long shadows of the elders who inspired them to perform in the first place. A player is more likely to emerge with something significant to say if he or she takes the time (decades, more often than not) necessary to master a wider vocabulary. Unfortunately, the results of this painstaking process are seldom appreciated in a business that is partial to youth and routinely neglects the hard-earned accomplishments of the middle-aged.
Trumpeter Jim Rotondi, a thirty-nine year old veteran who apprenticed in the bands of Ray Charles, Junior Cook, George Coleman, and Charles Earland, exemplifies the wisdom of taking the long road to genuine artistic achievement. The trajectory of his recorded efforts as a leader and sideman, which began with Eric Alexander’s session for Delmark in 1992, has reached a peak onDestination Up, Rotondi’s first disc for the Sharp Nine label. (The release date is September 25.) The brash, extroverted quality that has always been present in his playing shows no signs of abating. Moreover, in contrast to some earlier work marred by uncertain pauses and difficulties in making phrases coalesce, Rotondi’s solos are now a near-perfect amalgam of power, finesse, and logic. Another sign of maturity is that he doesn’t deem it necessary to carry the whole load of the recording alone. Rotondi chooses sideman who have an assertive temperament similar to his own, gives them ample space to express themselves, and, in the case of trombonist Steve Davis and vibraphonist Joe Locke, includes their compositions.
“Designated Hitter,” Rotondi’s bright, medium-to-up-tempo theme opens the disc in an exhilarating manner. First up is Locke who moves from conventionally swinging and firmly grounded lines into a rapid, sweeping section broken up by drummer Joe Farnsworth’s rim shot/cymbal crash combination, and back again. Playing off of the drummer’s nudging snare, Rotondi’s horn crackles with energy, his broad sound adding weight to the proceedings as he finds ways of joining together a number of seemingly dissimilar passages. Managing to sound both casual and precise, pianist Mulgrew Miller serves up an uninterrupted stream of ideas, his chords slyly commenting on the thickset movement of his right hand. Farnsworth’s eight-bar exchanges with Rotondi all revolve around keeping a ride cymbal rhythm intact. The beats emanating from his snare, bass and toms all come out like terse, funky questions and answers.
Beginning with an introduction in which Peter Washington’s simple, repetitive bass pattern sounds as natural as breathing, “Evening Shades of Blue,” a lilting bossa nova written by Steve Davis, shows off a more relaxed side of the band’s collective personality. After Locke and the leader’s flugelhorn share the tune, Davis immediately enters. He plays finely drawn melodies, and injects a bit of discord by repeating variations of a simple three-note figure against the beat. In concert with Miller’s splendid chords and Farnsworth’s tapping the bell of the ride cymbal, Rotondi’s long strings of sixteenth-note phrases and brief pauses are dynamic without becoming out of proportion to the music as a whole.
Over the straightforward swing generated by Washington and Farnsworth, the melody of Irving Berlin’s “Remember” is divided between Rotondi’s muted trumpet and Davis’ open horn. For the most part, Miller links short phrases that are invigorated by the jolt of the drummer’s snare. The pianist’s provocative comping lights a fire under Rotondi’s turn, and the continued presence of the mute adds a pensive dimension to the trumpeter’s genial, tuneful style. It’s easy to luxuriate in the warmth of Davis’ full, rounded tone without neglecting to notice the drive and energy of his playing.