Tenor saxophonist Ned Otter may not be a well-known name, but any recording which enlists the talents of pianist Harold Mabern and drummer Billy Higgins, plus the impeccable ears and engineering skills of Rudy van Gelder is—at least—worth investigating. With a session that could have been simply another competent post bop recording of a couple of chestnuts, two originals and a some lesser-known surprises, Otter’s combination of technical prowess, playful invention and melodic sense elevates things beyond the merely expected and, instead, delivers a recording that is contemporary yet reverent; honouring its roots in tradition without simply emulating them.
Otter has some kind words to say about George Coleman in the album’s dedication, and his respect extends beyond mere sentiment. Combining the warmth and suppleness of Coleman with the harmonic invention and economy of Wayne Shorter, Otter manages to find new things to say while remaining respectful of the tune. Like some of the best Blue Note sessions that are inspirations for this session, Otter demonstrates a fine sense of swing; his original tune “Been There Before” starts off as a ballad, but quickly moves into a mid-tempo swinger that is anchored firmly by Higgins and veteran bassist Dennis Irwin.
Trumpeter Tom Kirkpatrick clearly comes from the Chet Baker school, but on this session he also exhibits more edge. On the title track he blows hard and heavy, with tartness reminiscent of Lee Morgan or Freddie Hubbard. Higgins, who recorded this session shortly before his passing, was renowned for always surprising and amazing. Even on a soul-jazz tune like Wes Montgomery’s “Road Song,” he found a way to make it swing. Mabern, while not considered a groundbreaking pianist, is an empathic player who provides support that encourages the front line to take more harmonic risks; like Higgins swing is paramount, as demonstrated by his deft solo on Duke Pearson’s “Jeannine.” Irwin provides a rhythmic support that is firm yet loose, imposing a subtle 4/4 feel over Otter’s jazz waltz, “Black Sunday.”
And what can be said about Rudy van Gelder other than, with his innate ability to take the traditional jazz quintet and make it sound both evocative and provocative, he is truly the sixth member of the ensemble. On hundreds of recordings he has stamped his own personal imprint, creating a recorded sound that puts the listener in the middle of the action, and the listener is equally engaged here.
With Powder Keg , Ned Otter continues to assert the validity of post bop as a style that is as contemporary as any other genre. In the right hands even a standard like Nat King Cole’s tender ballad “I Get Sentimental Over Nothing” should have a passion, a rich vitality; Otter is clearly in a position to demonstrate that a lyrical ear and sense of adventure, coupled with a suitable sense of restraint, can result in a mainstream album that engages the mind and the heart, while at the same time challenging players and listeners alike.
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