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These four cutting-edge players did some recent touring under the name New Directions. Their self-titled studio debut consists mainly of short and to-the-point reworkings of Blue Note classics. Altoist/leader Greg Osby remarks that the group limited itself primarily to the boogaloo and funk side of Blue Note, feeling that the more cerebral and avant-garde stuff was too sacred to touch. Yet in the hands of players like these, boogaloo and funk becomes cerebral and avant-garde in exciting, unexpected ways. A lot of the credit for that should be given to bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, neither of whom are officially part of New Directions, although they appear throughout the CD as a sort of house rhythm section.
Arranging duties on the Blue Note tunes are split among the band members: pianist Jason Moran sprinkles his magic on four of them; tenorist Mark Shim tackles two; Osby and vibraphonist Stefon Harris each take on one. In addition, Osby, Moran, and Harris each contribute an original. Harris’s and Moran’s are melancholy yet radically contrasting ballads, while Osby’s "20 Questions" closes the record swinging, preceded by an amusing false start. The Blue Note covers, despite substantial reworking, are entirely recognizable. Indeed, the emphasis seems to be on accessibility, not musical whimsy at the expense of the tune — although Moran’s reharmonization of Horace Silver’s "Song for My Father" is a little hard on the ears at first. Moran stretches with the most success on "Tom Thumb," a Wayne Shorter piece with the kind of melody Austin Powers could get down to.
The full ensemble is featured on most of the tracks, with solos apportioned carefully and creatively — often only two per track — so as to avoid repetition and monotony. Harris and Moran are paired for a haunting duet on Sam Rivers’s "Beatrice" and Moran is featured in trio format for his "Commentary on Electrical Switches," a tribute to the late Jaki Byard. Mark Shim’s presence throughout is understated yet memorable, his tenor sound so big and low that it could easily be mistaken at times for a baritone.
In sum, the disc is full of the kind of hip, harmonically open, angular yet inviting improvisation one would expect from Osby and crew. A future live album would be a good idea, though — these players are at their best when they have more room to stretch. That said, New Directions presages very fine things to come from Moran, Harris, and Shim, whose careers as leaders have only just begun.
Tracks: 1. Theme from Blow Up 2. The Sidewinder 3. Ping Pong 4. Beatrice 5. No Room for Squares 6. Song for My Father 7. Tom Thumb 8. Commentary on Electrical Switches 9. Big Bertha 10. Recordame 11. Song of the Whispering Banshee 12. False Start 13. 20 Questions.
Greg Osby, alto sax; Mark Shim, tenor sax; Stefon Harris, vibes; Jason Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums.