Steve Messick: Endemic Ensemble: Tangled

Paul Rauch By

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Veteran composer/bassist Steve Messick has brought back the eclectic group of musicians he formed in 2010, Endemic Ensemble, for a new album entitled Tangled. The session presents nine new compositions, three each from Messick, pianist David Franklin, and saxophonist Matso Limtiaco. The ensemble, rounded out by drummer Christian Krehbiel, and noted saxophonist Travis Ranney, have created an album of solid compositions and arrangements, skillfully crafted in the big band tradition, but presented more with a hard bop edge.

Two of the composers in Endemic Ensemble have roots in large ensemble,or big band jazz, Messick with Orchestra Seattle, and with Limtiaco in the Emerald City Jazz Orchestra. Travis Ranney plays tenor in the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra, and is truly the soloist that elevates the performance of this solid, swinging, straight ahead combo. The utilization of low tones from both baritone and tenor sax, without brass, is an interesting and notable approach taken by Messick in forming this ensemble, that provides the unique identity that keeps the listener engaged. Indeed, if as a listener you have preference for a more polyrhythmic or rubato approach, this is not the record for you.

Throughout these nine closely crafted compositions, the rhythm section is solid, relying on a straight ahead approach, from which the soloists outside of Ranney take little advantage. While the performance portrayed on this album comes across as very capable and professional, it expresses a feel more emanating from an academic technical approach, at times lacking the spontaneity and adventuresome spirit of the bandstand. One might get the feeling the musicians need to break free of the tether the studio provides, and the recording process assures, and delve into the creative world influenced by real life in club dates and jam sessions. There appears to be a lot of life yet to inject into this project.

The opening salvo, Messick's "Sugar Ant," opens with an Ellington like theme, the beautiful metered arrangement leading to a strikingly Johnny Hodges like solo by Ranney, utilizing the upper register of his tenor in an alto like voice. The baritone of Limtiaco follows with a deep blue solo, leading into a spirited exchange with Ranney, accentuating the beautiful tonal colors the baritone/tenor combination offers.

Pianist Franklin displays his "not afraid to swing" piano style, with his composition, the title track, "Tangled." Following a riveting latin intro, the sax combination of Ranney and Limtiaco carries the melody line into Franklin's lovely solo. Ranney once again displays his skills as the combo's premier soloist. His offering on this number begins as a duo with Messick, building into a trio adding drums, and then shifting into overdrive with the full rhythm section supporting a meteoric solo that stands out ultimately as the creative thread for the true jazz listener throughout these nine compositions.

Messick's "The Snort," personifies perfectly the overall sound he was searching for in assembling this unique instrumentation, and envisioning these equally unique personalities. Though the baritone of Limtiaco will never be compared to bop master Gary Smulyan, or baritone legends Pepper Adams and Gerry Mulligan, his ensemble playing, elegant soloing and thick monster baritone, is the low end counter weight of this music.

Limtiaco's "Tolovana Stomp," is the album's most intoxicating melody, harmony and arrangement. The lively and inspired energy is drenched in the entire jazz tradition. Ranney's solo flows like spring runoff cascading over the rhythm's break, swinging hard, with Messick's bass line providing the backbone and pulse, from stomp to swing and back.

Mr. Limtiaco does not stop there. The album's dynamic finale, "Retro," is his as well, and is perhaps the most memorable melody of the session. Writing a piece for this ensemble from the perspective of the baritone saxophone, seems to be fitting. Playing with wit and tonal elegance, Limtiaco combines with Ranney to play with a feel reminiscent of the classic works of Thad Jones and Mel Lewis. Travis Ranney plays through the changes with probing intelligence, stretching the harmonic structure of the composition every which way, finalizing his status as the true pearl of this entire recording. Messick's inventive bass solo is a treat, his beautiful intonation clearly expressing the tonal originality of the piece.

Tangled is a solid effort from this evolving ensemble. Messick's vision is one that needs to continue forward on its journey. It is clear that the band is a complement of skilled composers, and musicians, who have an ever expansive narrative to share. Let's hope we have the opportunity to see them live on the bandstand in the near future. The fine writing and pedigree of musicianship demands the exploration and introspection only live interpretive performance can provide. For that, I anxiously look forward.

Track Listing: Sugar Ant; Tangled; The Snort; Change of Scenery; The Tolovana Stomp; Maui Chimes; Goodbye, Old Friend; Nassau Place; Retro

Personnel: Steve Messick: bandleader, double bass; Travis Ranney: tenor and soprano saxophones; Matso Limtiaco: baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; David Franklin: piano; Christian Krehbiel: drums

Title: Endemic Ensemble: Tangled | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Self Produced

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