Stephen Menold's ride On the Night Bus is for the most part an amiable and pleasant trip, one wherein the Canadian-born bassist's quintet revisits a time when bop reigned supreme and giants whose names are forever enshrined in the historic annals of jazz were alive and swinging. While Menold says his series of ten original compositions represents a portrait of his home base of Montreal, it could as well be an homage to those pathfinders who raised bop to its summit and entrusted the necessary tools for their successors to enhance that framework.
Take, for an example, the opening track, "Frou Frou," an ebullient swinger whose bop-shaped harmony and rhythm would have been right at home on a Prestige or Blue Note recording from the 1950s or 1960s. The same holds true, at a slightly slower tempo, for the free and easy "Person Mcfurson," as it does for the warm and flavorful "Chili" and most everything that follows including the ballads "The Writer" (on which Menold plays arco bass) and "In Waiting." "Not Approved" and "Scuffle" are lively old-school flag-wavers, as is "On the Night Bus," which cleaves even more snugly to the pattern established by the quintet's esteemed forebears. The album's closing theme, the amiable "4 am Shuffle," is also its longest, running more than ten minutes.
While Menold is a splendid writer whose sunny themes should please almost anyone who appreciates straight-ahead jazz as exemplified by bop, the question remains: what about the musicians? It is here, of course, that comparisons must be drawn. Even though Menold's ensemble consists of standout players from the Montreal area, they are clearly not in the same class as those who helped create the music. That's not a put-down, simply a fact. Trumpeter Violet Hebert is a capable improviser, as are tenor saxophonist Philippe Brochu-Pelletier and pianist Josh Rager; they're simply not Freddie Hubbard, Hank Mobley or Horace Silverand no one expects them to be. The technique is certainly there, but not the originality. Which makes perfect sense, as they did not create that vocabulary, they are simply borrowing it. In facing up to that inescapable roadblock, they do the best they can, as Menold and drummer Alex Lepanto lend admirable support.
All things considered, On the Night Bus is a sharp and well-enacted narrative of bop-oriented jazz, and an impressive debut by Menold and his companions.
Frou Frou; Person Mcfurson; Chili; The Writer; Off-Kilter; Not Approved; Scuffle; On the Night Bus; In Waiting; 4 am Shuffle.
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