Since moving to Britain from the US in 2005, bassist Michael Janisch has put much of his energy into collaborative projects involving musicians from the two countries. It's hardly a radical idea, but it's as good a shtick as any with which to carve a profile, and along with his prodigious instrumental talents, Janisch is an unusually media and marketing savvy artist, with an all singing, all dancing website and now, with Whirlwind Recordings, his own record label.
Shortly after arriving in London, Janisch formed The Transatlantic Collective with fellow Berklee alumnus, alto saxophonist Patrick Cornelius. TTC debuted on disc earlier in 2009 with the well-received Traveling Song (Woodville Records). Cornelius is also a member of the 10-piece band on Purpose Built, another US/British project and Janisch's debut album as leader. Featured British players include the fast rising young vibraphonist, Jim Hughart, and the outstanding guitarist, Phil Robson, who leads his own groups, notably including the string quartet, double-bass and guitar outfit Six Strings & A Beat, as well as co-leading the post-rock, post-jazz band, Partisans, with tenor saxophonist and bass clarinetist Julian Siegel.
Janisch himself is an exceptionally powerful player whose approach to his instrument brings to mind Cecil Taylor's dictum that the piano can be thought of as "88 tuned drums." Unlike the iconoclastic Taylor, however, Janisch is a lyrical, if forceful, player and one who is comfortable working within the established, post-bop, American jazz tradition. Purpose Built isn't concerned with constructing a new edifice, much less tearing down an existing one; it's about creating sympathetic, structured platforms for virtuoso improvisation, and within that template it's very successful.
Most of the 12 tracks on the album are up-tempo Janisch originals, but there are four covers: Sammy Fain's "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing," Miles Davis' "Milestones," co-arranged with Cornelius, who contributes a fine bop-rooted solo, Billy Strayhorn's "Blood Count," the slowest and most introspective tune on the set, and John Coltrane's "Moment's Notice" (from the saxophonist's 1957 Blue Note album, Blue Train), a rapid-fire bass feature accompanied by drummer Johnathan Blake.
Janisch's dense horn arrangements and relentlessly assertive playing style are both a little too monolithic for a disc lasting 73 minutes, but they're offset by the quality of the soloists. Cornelius shines, as do both tenor saxophonists, Paul Booth and Walter Smith 111. But the real stars are Hart, guitarists Robson and Mike Moreno, and pianist Aaron Goldberg, who is heard on just three tracks but makes a mighty impression. Janisch himself takes few formal solos, but is ever at the center of things.
A strong debut from a bandleader who will be even more effective once he's developed a better sense of contrasting light and shade dynamics.