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In this postmodern era of multiple working groups and all-star recording sessions, consistent jazz bands seem ever harder to maintain. Developing an intuitive working relationship with a consistent lineup may be a rarity today, but not so with Colorado-based tenor saxophonist Fred Hess' group. This is his third recording in as many years with the same core lineup.
The veteran rhythm section of bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Matt Wilson continues to elevate the game to virtually telepathic levels, once again proving a symbiotic pair. The mercurial Wilson sounds especially suited to Hess' eclectic vision. Hess' favorite sparring partner, cornetist Ron Miles, demonstrates fluid dexterity as well as a capacity for splintery abstraction. Both Hess and Miles share an extremely broad palette of sound, from dulcet tones to harsh exhortations. Hess' signature sound on tenor is a blend of husky, old school Lester Young breathiness coupled with a brisk linear attack worthy of Anthony Braxton. Altoist Mark Harris is new to this lineup, arriving courtesy of Hess' Boulder Creative Music Ensemble. He's given ample room to show his strident and acerbic tone, blending well with the established front line.
Hess' writing has expanded considerably with the addition of the third horn. Now able to deliver contrapuntal lines of dizzying dexterity, His joyous free bop tunes sound larger than life. The serpentine writing of these circuitous melodies invokes the baroque formalism of classic bebop more than the bluesy riffs of hard bop or the cerebral cool of post bop. With three part harmonies and infectious, snaking melodies, these tunes are far more intricate than the writing of the average modernist. Blending the harmonic complexity of classic West Coast cool with the fiery energy of East Coast hot and a touch of AACM-inspired tonal exploration, Hess exhibits multifarious talent.
"Opposites Attract" is representative, combining a number of thematic devices, from the slinky, noir-ish intro to Mingus-like rhythm section variations. Bluesy vamping during Hess's burly tenor solo yields a sprightly free bop cadence, underpinning Miles' sputtery cornet variations. When not spinning out ebullient rhythms, oblique melodies and angular lines, the quartet eases into sparse AACM-like sound explorations. "The Clef's Ski Vacation" and "In The Moment" are characteristic of this open-ended, experimental approach. The former begins with a classic Ellingtonian device, conjuring the pulsating sounds of an arriving train, just before the free-form breakdown.
Mentioning Hess' lack of exposure seems prerequisite in almost every review of his work, and once heard, it's perplexing why he hasn't been afforded greater acclaim. An excellent tunesmith with a superb backing ensemble, this adept improviser has all the makings of a burgeoning master.
As a kid, my mom told me I'd like jazz. I thought she was nuts. Then I went to hear Cannonball Adderley (with Nat Adderley, George Duke, Walter Booker, Roy McCurdy and Airto) and everything changed. Yeah, mom knows best.