In The Grotto is Denver-based composer and tenor saxophonist Fred Hess' twelfth album as a leader and the fourth to feature members of his long-running quartet. The Long and Short of It (Tapestry, 2004) and Crossed Paths (Tapestry, 2005) featured trumpeter Ron Miles, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Matt Wilson. How 'Bout Now (Tapestry, 2006) expanded the quartet to a quintet with Mark Harris on alto saxophone. Continuing in this format, multi-instrumentalist John Gunther replaces Harris, making his debut with the veteran line-up on this stunning new album.
Hess' writing is one of gradual progression; in terms of composing and improvising, each succeeding album reaches further than the last. Hess again augments the classic piano-less, two horn quartet line-up with a third horn. The intuitive and malleable rhythm section of Filiano and Wilson frees up the frontline to engage in more than two-part harmonies and basic counterpoint. The crafty Wilson continues to astound with his percussive mastery. Teamed with the masterful Filiano, these two elevate the role of rhythm section accompaniment beyond time-keeping to conversational dialogue.
Hess is a compelling stylist; his breathy old school tone softens his modernist angular phrasing. Miles lends a mellifluously abstract edge to the quintet; his solos on the title track and "Ninth House" are expressively fragile in their thematically rigorous beauty. Newcomer Gunther plays with brio and verve, dueling with Hess on a number of invigorating encounters. His acerbic alto solos on "Simple Steps" and "Alison's Dream" are electrifying jolts on a record filled with highlights.
Hess' writing brilliantly merges the buoyant lilt of West Coast jazz with the simmering energy of Post-War free jazz, effortlessly blending seemingly incongruous genres and styles. A creative soul whose work never fails to swing, Hess is a traditionalist at heart. "Hold On" borrows as much from classic 1960s hard bop tenor battles as the polyphonic advances of Ornette Coleman. "Simple Steps blends a raw, funk backbeat with turgid horn solos, while "Alison's Dream" vacillates from pungent three-horn discourse to sparse free-form detours.
The introspective title track employs rich counterpoint, while "Fortunes Finding" blends 20th Century classical motifs with jazz improvisation, yielding the session's most sophisticated excursion. "The Clefs - Final Chapter?" ties together AACM styled exploration with hints of reggae and a verbal narrative. Ending with "Ninth House," Hess weaves the melodies of "Miles' Mode" and "All Blues" into a rousing tribute to John Coltrane as the quintet knits exalted modality to hard-charging swing.
Efficiently blending classic hard bop swing and Third Stream ambience with fiery improvisation and experimental structures, In The Grotto is Hess' most expansive statement to date.
Simple Steps; In The Grotto; Hold On; Fortunes Finding; Alison's Dream; The Clefs - Final Chapter?; Ninth House.
Fred Hess: tenor saxophone; Ron Miles: trumpet; John Gunther: flute, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone; Ken Filiano: bass; Matt Wilson: drums.