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James King's "Allen's Odyssey"

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Allen's Odyssey by James King
Comments by Ron Kearns

Allen's Odyssey, the new album by bassist/composer/band leader James King defies the normal assumptions made about music of this type being released. Sometimes recordings by bass players and drummers are (incorrectly) thought not to be as good as recordings by horn players, guitarists or pianists. It's as if being part of the “back line" means taking a back seat. Ignore the fact that bassists are the only members of a jazz combo or group who have to improvise continuously throughout performances and recordings (constantly laying down lines based on the chord progressions). The second misconception is that recordings of all original material are somehow “less significant" than recordings of standards. That can be true if the material used is not based on the same principles that standards are based on.

I mention all of this because James King does what a lot of artists making their debut recording fail to do. He chose the right material to present and chose the right players to perform it. From the opening track, “A Texas Thang," it's hard to imagine any one other than Gary Bartz on sax. The chemistry and communication between Bartz, Larry Willis (piano), Nasar Abadey (drums) and King on bass is obvious to the listener from the start. As you listen it's not much of a stretch for you to see yourself sitting in a club listening to these gentlemen do their collective “thang." The interplay between Willis and Bartz on “Dez's Dance" is probably the most obvious demonstration of how comfortable this group is with the material and one another. “Allen's Odyssey," the title track, is as King described to me what most acoustic jazz lovers would call jazz. From Abadey's cymbal work opening it up, this tune burns. Willis's comping is just right for what Bartz does and the interplay reminds me of Cedar Walton's “Firm Roots." That's probably what King the composer brings to this date, a wealth of knowledge of classic jazz performances and the ability to incorporate them into his compositions without sounding as though he's putting out a counterfeit version of somebody else's work.

To me, the sensitivity a group shows when playing a ballad says a lot about their communication skills. “This Time" finds the burning Bartz wearing his “sensitivity" hat. Abadey's well-timed splashes and mallet work serve to enhance the feel and his brushes serve to give the tune mobility helping to propel the piece from being sappy to snappy, hard for some groups to avoid when playing ballads. Both Willis and Bartz take a few side trips outside.

“Miss Lillie" was written for King's mother and conjures up thoughts of Sunday mornings and the loving care a mother gives with Willis offering up a heaping serving of “Soul Food for Thought." Once again Abadey serves to punctuate the action leading to King's best solo on the album. “Brick by Brick" gives the group an opportunity to travel freely and outside for a minute but they quickly bring the listener back into the fold. It's only fitting that “In Contemplation" follows it because “Brick by Brick" creates an introspective mood. Bartz's soprano does little to snap you out of your contemplative mood. The wailing sound he emits is fitting the title. Turn up the speakers and close your eyes and you'll be transported back to the '60s to one of many of the classic jazz clubs that once dotted the U.S.. “Going Home" makes you think of those long drives home. Anxious to get there but not rushed. Making time, no long rest stops or anything to hold you back--just one more mile and... well, you get the idea. The name “Paulette" is fitting for the final track. It's strong but delicate and the sound of the soprano gets the most out of the melody. Once again, the group shows how important listening and communication are to jazz. If you're expecting watered down jazz or trite melodies this CD is not for you. If you expect solid individual performances and a strong group dynamic this album is for you. I didn't mention Allen and who he was because you'll have to do what I did, let James King tell you. Read the liner notes. When you find out who Allen is, you'll understand who James King is.

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