What is remarkable about drummer's Billy Mintz's debut recording Mintz Quartet is his masterful versatility on his instrument. That is no surprise as Mintz, an in demand sideman, has played with a wide variety of musicians during his career ranging from disco diva Gloria Gaynor to saxophonists Lee Konitz and Charles Lloyd. A well-known educator and writer, Mintz also showcases his sophisticated compositional skills on this intriguing album.
"Ugly Beautiful" for example, is an intense and free flowing piece. It opens with pianist Roberta Piket's edgy, percussive yet intelligently woven improvised lines that are spiced with a hint of the blues. Mintz shades the melody with muted colors with his polyrhythmic vamps. Out this bubbling cauldron of darkly shimmering rhythms emerges tenorist John Gross' passionate and explorative saxophone pushing the proverbial envelope while eschewing atonality. Mintz's own turn in the spotlight finds him stretching out on a contemplative, elegant, and fluid extemporization that is angular yet it still swings.
A sense of the dramatic permeates the two-movement composition "Retribution" and "After Retribution." Bassist Putter Smith's atmospheric, haunting reverberations set the expectant mood on the former. The thudding echo of the bass drum and the crash of the cymbals add an ominous feel. Gross' long and darkly hued notes glide over Picket's exquisitely simmering organ chords. The hypnotic refrains evolve into a stimulating spontaneous and poetic group conversation. The second part starts off on a brighter tone but as the same motifs repeat and expand a more somber ambience prevails concluding with Piket's sparse and tolling piano.
There are also some more mainstream, if not exactly lighter, tunes on the record. These run the gamut from the unabashedly romantic (but not syrupy) "Destiny" with its Latin flavors, Piket's lush piano and longing vocals to the soul-jazz "Cannonball." The latter features Piket's earthy organ groove, Gross' blistering phrasing and Mintz's funky cymbal and drum works. The presence of these tracks next to ones like the gripping "Dit" with Mintz's fluid and innovative mixture of timbres and textures on the closing solo, definitely affects the thematic unity of the album but it also adds variety to it.
In the end, it is surprising, that a musician with this immensity of talent and such a unique approach has not lead a recording session before this. The Mintz Quartet hopefully is just the first of many discs from this exciting artist.
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