Fred Randolph's Learning Curve is heavy on tribute songs. The bassist/composer pays homage to Michael Brecker, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, and pianist Art Hirahara, who joins him on the disc. But while Randolph does manage to suggest a Brecker Brothers tune, an aggressive yet catchy Mingus number and a journey into Trane's spiritual side, the real joys of this album have little to do with tributes.
The collaborative work of trumpeter Don Beck and tenor saxophonist Rob Roth is at the heart of the disc's success. Blending beautifully when playing together and delivering effortless, intriguing solos on their own, Beck and Roth quietly dominate Learning Curve. One of the album's highlights is "Churchy Tune," which brings Beck and Roth's connection to the fore and also features a Hammond organ solo by Michael Bluestein that manages to both embrace and expand the traditional sound of the organ in the bluesy church tradition.
Randolph's own skills are best demonstrated on "Secret Garden," the only track on which he plays fretless bass. His funky vibe is brought to the forefront of this upbeat number and works well with the shiny tone of soprano saxophonist Mike Zilber. Beck and Roth sit this one out, which changes the dynamic, but "Secret Garden" is still a standout tune.
The disc closes with "Pua Lilia," a traditional Hawaiian song performed as a duet by Randolph and Hirahara. It seems an odd ending to a disc of originals performed by a larger ensemble, but the lyrical piece gives Randolph another opportunity to shine. The piece brings Learning Curve to a satisfying end.
Track Listing: 1. I Wonder Why (for Michael Brecker)
2. Windward Side
3. Churchy Tune
4. Learning Curve
5. The Longest Time
6. Secret Garden
7. A's Vamp (for Art Hirahara)
8. In Honor of (for Charles Mingus)
9. Homage to Trane (for John Coltrane)
10. Nature of the Beast
11. Pua Lilia (Traditional Hawaiian)
Personnel: Fred Randolph: acoustic fretless bass, acoustic bass;
Art Hirahara: acoustic piano;
Tim Bulkley: drums, rain stick;
Rob Roth: tenor sax;
Don Beck: trumpet;
Mike Zilber: soprano sax;
Michael Bluestein: Hammond organ;
Bryan Bowman: tabla;
Michaelle Goerlitz: percussion