It's easy to see how Chicago quartet Black Diamond fit right into the sax / sax / bass / drums tradition in jazz. In fact, with the intricate and energetic compositions, speedy and flawless solos, and evocative song titles this group's first album Mandala almost feels like a passing of the torch from the likes of similarly instrumented quartets like Endangered Blood and Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth. Even Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds comes to mind on occasion throughout Mandala, especially during the solo sections on tunes like "Eleanor and Rofus," as bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Neil Hemphill leisurely comp the and saxophonists Artie Black and Hunter Diamond's harmoniously cooperative, back-and-forth soloettes.
The two horn players split the songwriting duty down the middle, each one composing 3 tunes on his own as well as 3 co-written ones that bookend the album. The CD, released on Minneapolis label Shifting Paradigm, features "6 years of composition," as the group's website states, a time that was most certainly well spent. The tenor players' musical relationship comes through in their playing, and the record captures the sound of a friendship. Their ever so slight uniqueness of tone is complemented by their shared understanding of time and their effort to attain the same mood with each composition. The saxophones serenade each other like two best friends endlessly delighted by the simple joy of each other's company.
The sidemen play their roles as such expertly, laying down crisp foundations, the perfect settings for Black and Diamonds' solos to blossom. Ulery plays lively and lyrical lines alongside Hemphill's sometimes simple but always refined cymbal rhythms and well-placed snare hits. The last tune's title, "Little Melody" must allude to the hopping bass ostinato and the jangling percussion that accompanies it.
While the whole quartet make the most of their musical stylings and abilities, their composition is sadly no match for their playing. On "Little Melody" the bass and drums steal the focus away from the tenors, whose meandering harmonies float adrift over the track, but fail to hold most ears' interest for terribly long. The third track, "Rudy's Mood" falls short too, a bop tune performed like a jazz car chase whose many fast-paced ideas end up in a traffic jam. The standout tracks are Artie Black's tunes. His 3 compositions are well thought out and emotional. Black's mirroring sax parts and swollen, poignant harmonies are well suited for the band's dynamic.
While the Mandala compositions leave room for future improvement, the record is exuberant, honest and sentimental. The Black Diamond friendship is old, but the band is young, and with any luck, the group will give their fans more to enjoy in the future.
Track Name #1;
Jim Jam on the Veranda #1; The Middle Way #2; Rudy's Mood #3; Eleanor &
Rufus #4; Jacunda #5; Mandala #6; Village Within the City #7; Clay Feet #8;
Little Melody #9.
Artie Black #1: Tenor Saxophone; Hunter Diamond #2: Tenor Saxophone; Matt
Ulery #3: Bass; Neil Hemphill #4: Drums.
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