Listening to a band rummage through a number of modern jazz styles during the course of a set is now closer to a rule than an exception. Shunning a single easily recognizable paradigm based on the music’s glorified past, many musicians embrace the vagaries of a constantly shifting artistic landscape. The best of them (quite a few, actually) inevitably stamp their own hard won personalities into a variety of modes. In the process, they also frequently manage to blur stylistic distinctions, ultimately finding novel ways of producing familiar sounds.
The music onPlay-Penn, drummer Clarence Penn’s second date as a leader for Criss Cross, resists glib categorization and makes its own decisive statement. Just when one is tempted to affix labels such as “Soul Jazz,” “Hard Bop,” or even something less generic like “Early-sixties Coltrane,” the quintet goes in another direction. The impressive thing about all of this is that Penn and his cohorts are not simply displaying versatility for its own sake; despite the differences in character, each cut speaks with a resoluteness that makes it seem all-important. While Penn’s various rhythmic gambits and the bedrock bass lines of Rodney Whitaker form the core of record, it is the improvisations of trumpeter John Swana and tenor saxophonist Ron Blake that sustain interest throughout. Each in his own way, Swana and Blake (both of whom have released excellent discs of their own in the past year) play with a depth and clarity which goes beyond mere competence and into the realm of something genuinely inspired.
The thin, bubbling chords of guitarist Jesse Van Ruller imbue Monk’s “Teo” with the aura of a classic organ combo—without the presence of a Hammond B-3. Whitaker’s sturdy walking and broad thwack of Penn’s ride cymbal provides a steamroller foundation for the horns’ reading of the pithy melody. For the most part, Blake keeps things simple, letting his thick, lived-in tone prevail while developing speech-like phrases. When he becomes more expansive, emitting brief spasms before going right back into character, Penn stays right on top of him, briefly forsaking strict time keeping in favor of bracing single strokes to every drum and cymbal in his kit. As if to detach himself from Blake’s emotional directness, there’s a cool precision to Van Ruller’s brief turn, as he skillfully mixes and matches single note and chordal passages. Swana announces his presence with a couple of jolting blasts that dovetail nicely into a funky utterance. He plays with a satisfying unruffled coherence in the midst of Whitaker’s going in and out of tempo and Penn’s consistent (although never overdone) bomb dropping. Over Whitaker’s fixed pulse, the leader’s solo is methodical, favoring long silences instead of bombast, at times making the entire kit sound positively melodic.
Swana and Blake take turns playing the melody on a lovely, unhurried rendering of Michel Legrand’s “You Must Believe In Spring.” Overtop of Van Ruller’s tasteful accompaniment, there’s stillness to the trumpeter’s careful interpretation, as if the tune would shatter under the weight of too much embellishment. As Whitaker and Penn (with brushes) discretely join Van Ruller, Blake’s broad sound and the minor liberties he takes add density to the music without altering its somber mood. Whitaker’s repeated three-note figure evolves into a camelwalk tempo and Swana reenters, this time alternating bouncing clusters of notes and lengthy, vigorous sequences.
Throughout the medium-tempo “Preston’s Theme,” each member of a tenor, bass, and drums trio seems intent on charting his own idiosyncratic course, yet they all move in the same direction. Beginning as if warming up to a particularly arduous task, Blake repeats an uncomplicated melody, Whitaker’s intones a vamp that keeps everything stable, and Penn drums a quasi-Latin, Elvin Jones influenced rhythm. Blake’s marathon solo rapidly turns knotty while the bassist strums chords against the beat and the drummer moves in and out of straight time. At the onset of his turn, Penn leads with his bass drum, playing at a low volume and wrapping a few secondary figures around a booting rhythm before gradually increasing in loudness and complexity. Abandoning the maintenance of a steady beat, his cadences sound like broken, convoluted waves of sound, retaining the feeling of structure as they expand and contract.