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Fred Hess Band: How 'Bout Now

Dan McClenaghan By

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If you go down the list of categories eligible for Grammy Awards, you'll find Field 10 (Jazz), category 47, which is "Best Instrumental Solo." So the Grammy folks are telling us that out of all the jazz CDs released in a given year—thousands of discs that must contain almost uncountable solos—they've been able to isolate just one interlude, one inspired rant that is the best.

If they can do that, they're better than I am. But I can narrow things down, and what's hard to understand is how tenor saxophonist Fred Hess has been overlooked in this category these past few years.

Going back at least to Extended Family (2003), through Long and Short of It (2004), and into last year's Crossed Paths (all on Tapestry), Hess has been making stunningly beautiful free jazz sounds with his horn and his bands. With the horn, every single solo is a buffed-up gem, a mix of pinpoint precision and freewheeling elan; the band walks a line between freedom and control, counterpoint and unison sounds, elasticity and tight grooves.

Just a bit after the turn of the century, Fred Hess realized that he would never be a Joe Lovano and chase chords around, and that he might not have the technical acumen of a James Carter. So he forged his own path, which has proven one of the most interesting, high-octane, malleable sounds in jazz today. His new millennium musical vision was born with Extended Family; it matured with the next two releases, both featuring trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Matt Wilson. His latest offering, How 'Bout Now, adds another dimension to an already fully mature approach with the addition of alto saxophonist Mark Harris.

Hess always sounds as if he's in absolute complete control of his horn, with a burnished tone from the Lester Young school; but there's also a sense of underlying devil-may-care elation, mixed with a happy urgency. Ron Miles—on cornet here—always seems to take things into a different dimension with a Zen-like tranquility, while Ken Filiano muscles the rhythm around; Matt Wilson simmers and boils and bounces with a creative percussive zest. Mark Harris is used mostly as an ensemble addition, though he takes a tight, searing solo—sweetly screechy, if it can be called that—in front of a buoyant rhythm on "Scarlett's Dance."

This is so good—the rubbery ensemble sections, the inspired soling. As an aside (a revelatory one, I think), as I listened to "Sooz Blooz"—with Hess powering headlong, joyfully into a yet another vibrant solo---a small, plump, and very pretty dark-haired woman, granddaughter in her arms, shuffled into the room and broke into a beautiful spontaneous dance, telling me that on a viceral level, in spite of her claims to enjoy what I consider to be to most vapid and uninteresting popular songs, her soul—and her soles—know what's really good.

And that would be the music of Fred Hess.

Visit Fred Hess on the web.


Track Listing: How 'Bout Now; Sooz Blooz; Song for Susan; Scarlett's dance; Finding the Evidence; The Clef's Ski Vacation; Opposites Attract; Gathering Moss; In the Moment; B. Quick.

Personnel: Fred Hess: tenor saxophone; Ron Miles: cornet; Mark Harris: alto saxophone; Ken Filiano: bass; Matt Wilson: drums.

Title: How 'Bout Now | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Tapestry

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