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New York-based drummer Tobias Gebb assembled a stellar cast for free at last. The format of Unit 7 follows the instrumentation tradition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. The three-horn frontline and three-man rhythm section allows this group to sound bigger than it is at times, while also having the flexibility to make things more intimate. Gebb covers plenty of stylistic ground over the course of these eight songs and he wastes no time getting started.
"Blues for Drazen" begins with a fiery drum introduction that leads into an up-tempo swing feel. Alto saxophonist Bobby Watson, tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard and pianist Eldad Zvulun all get some space to stretch out as Gebb unleashes a furious solo with machine gun-like runs. "My Love" is a Brazilian-tinged Gebb composition that shows great contrast between the three soloists. Trumpeter Joe Magnarelli plays things pretty straight and has a drier sound than usual, while tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm is warmer and more soulful and Zvulun comes across as being more contemplative and measured.
Gebb's "Spitball" is a close relative of soulful, funky, feel-good tunes like "The Sidewinder," that brought trumpeter Lee Morgan great fame during his Blue Note heyday. Altoist Mark Gross and Frahm both get some room to solo, but it's Magnarelli that steals the show with his fluid and energetic performance. Gil Evans and Charles Mingus both provide some inspiration for Gebb's unique arrangement of "You Don't Know What Love Is"; whether playing castanets behind a brooding saxophone solo or swinging behind the band, Gebb always provides the right support and feel. The high point of this performance comes when Watson and Dillard turn up the heat as they solo over and around one another.
While a title like "Bop Be Dop" might suggest a Charlie Parker-style workout, the music couldn't be further from that realm; instead, it's a calypso in the spirit of Sonny Rollins, featuring tenor saxophonist Ron Blake. "Free At Last," with a title referencing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and paying tribute to American President Obama, is a slow-building, harmonious chorale that reaches a soul-stirring conclusion. The finest example of Gebb's flexibility and Elvin Jones-like sensibility is on "Softly as in a Morning Contemplation." Gebb melds "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" with pianist McCoy Tyner's "Contemplation," and the result is nothing short of spectacular. The song doesn't succeed because of what's played, but rather for what is left out. A hip, loose feel is present throughout the song, with bassist Neal Miner anchoring the group and the saxophones so cool that they seem to ooze from the players' pores. Sitarist Neel Murgai joins the band for "Tomorrow Never Knows." Frahm and Gross have fun emulating and meshing with Murgai as they put their own stamp on this last song.
Track Listing: Blues for Drazen; My Love; Spitball; You Don't Know What Love Is; Bop Be Dop; Free At Last; Softly as in a Morning Contemplation; Tomorrow Never Knows.