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The Fred Hess Band: In the Grotto

Dan McClenaghan By

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The opening cut on The Fred Hess Band's In the Grotto, "Simple Steps," is a curious mix of whimsy and menace, stunning technical virtuosity and free form good times, a malleable weave of the eloquent and the intricate in his solos as he blows between the tight ensemble sections, all within the saxophonist's loose-jointed compositions. It's a sound that has a beautiful, slightly cerebral and, at times, slightly daft—with a method to the madness—feeling to it.

Tenor saxophonist Hess's artistry took an evolutionary leap with his piano-less quartet disc, Extended Family (Tapestry Records, 2002). He has since put out, in clockwork fashion, four similar sets, each of them nudging his artistry further along. On How 'Bout Now (Tapestry, 2006) he added an extra horn—Matt Harris on alto saxophone. Hess does the same on In the Grotto, bringing in John Gunther (alto sax and flute), filling in the background with a wider range of colors.

It's an all-star band. Besides Hess and Gunther, you have the very busy drummer Matt Wilson, who always brings quirky humor and unexpected backdrops into the mix. Trumpeter Ron Miles, with his soft tone and relative restraint seems like a voice of reason—again, it's relative. Ken Filiano, going back to "Simple Steps," sounds like a guy who came into the place looking to kick somebody's ass, but they shoved a bass into his hands. So he puts his raging energy into the four strings and burnished wood, powering off a steroidal rant against the almost surreal finesse/freedom dynamic of a Hess solo ripping around the room. Then Gunther on alto sax—upping the "crazy" factor—wails into his spot in front of Wilson's controlled flailing.

The title tune finds Miles' muted trumpet on a tune that blows nearly mainstream—Filiano walking—before it disassembles and changes tempo, with Gunther's flute adding some cool coloring.

A major strength of the sound is the arranging—voices slipping in and out, brief unison sections loosening into overlapping conversations built around spirited soloing. And nobody solos like Hess—each turn he takes glows and flashes like a dark-hued, asymmetrically-cut diamond. Indeed, nobody makes music like Fred Hess. He has developed a truly original sound.

Track Listing: Simple Steps; In The Grotto; Hold On; Fortunes Finding; Alison's Dream; The Clefs - Final Chapter?; Ninth House.

Personnel: Fred Hess: tenor saxophone; Ron Miles: trumpet; John Gunther: flute, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Ken Filiano: bass; Matt Wilson: drums.

Title: In The Grotto | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: Alison


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