This 2006 release of an on-location recording features a non-working band of five musicians who live above 96th Street and have studied at the New School or the Manhattan School of Music. The sounds are less suggestive of the conservatory, however, than Rudy Van Gelder's Blue Note recording studio from the late '50s and early '60s, an association that's furthered by the inclusion of Sonny Clark's "Blue Minor" from Cool Struttin'
(1958), one of many seminal hard bop sessions for the legendary label.
It's not clear from either the music on the CD or Ira Gitler's liner notes whether this recording ensemble has a nominal leader or is a purely cooperative venture. Trumpeter Ryan Kisor certainly has the profile, experience and chops to take the honors. His explosive, dramatic break leading into his solo on "In the Kitchen," an up-tempo blues by pianist Michael "Spike" Wilner, is in itself an announcement of boss credentials. But after two rapidly passing choruses, he obligingly gets out of the way for Ian Hendrickson-Smith, a Cannonball-inspired alto player who combines an ebullient sound with some authoritative, swinging ideas.
Ultimately, the dominating presence on the session is Wilner, who contributes three of the five original tunes. His solos, moreover, call to mind the spirit as well as the substance of Wynton Kelly (the pianist on Blue Mitchell's recording of Ronnell Bright's "Sweet Pumpkin'," a welcome addition to the present program). Regardless of how hard a group might appear to be swinging prior to the piano's turnwhether a Miles Davis live date or a Blue Mitchell or Julian Adderley studio sessiona dancing Kelly solo was always a reminder that there was room for improvement. Not only does Wilner, like Kelly, kick the rhythm section up a notch during each of his solos, but he invariably manages to find and develop engaging, cohesive melodic motifs before allowing himself to be processed through a tune's sequence of chord changes.
Bassist Barak Mori demonstrates his solo credentials on Hendrickson-Smith's infectious "O'Cleary's Shuffle," and drummer Charles Ruggiero is featured prominently on "Kitchen." Otherwise, both players lay down the solid and unselfish foundation which is essential to a hard bop blowing sessionsomething this recording captures more convincingly to my ears than the recent, heavily-promoted Wynton Marsalis recording Live at the House of Tribes (Blue Note, 2005). The program, the ensemble work, the solos, the audio qualityit's not "progressive" music, perhaps, but it admirably represents the style.
At the same time, musicians can play a styleeven one as formulaic as "hard bop"without being confined by it, provided their aim is not departure from but expansion of a definition. Horace Silver's and Kenny Dorham's arranging and harmonizations, for example, frequently took them beyond the "in" and "out" choruses of tunes, and Walter Davis, Jr. (listed as a teacher of Wilner) composed especially challenging, intense and visionary songs with neo-operatic, aria-like melodies ("Backgammon," "Uranus," "Gypsy Folk Tales," "Jodi," "Scorpio Rising") that have sadly disappeared from the repertory since Art Blakey stopped performing them. There's work to be done, and it will require musicians of no lesser skills than these to complete it.