Much like another group of distinguished jazz veterans, namely The Cookers, the premise here was a simple one. Get together a crew of like-minded musicians with a track record of shared experiences and see where the music takes things. The genesis for Heads of State was a three-day homage to McCoy Tyner last fall at Smoke where pianist Larry Willis
led this very quartet. The group, which also includes saxophonist Gary Bartz
, bassist Buster Williams
, and drummer Al Foster
seemed to jell and the impetus was for the quartet to continue as a unit, ultimately leading to the disc at hand.
Of course, it should come as no surprise that these gentlemen have come upon a degree of musical conversation that is almost telepathic. Each one has crossed paths on numerous occasions with a playbook of jazz music's finest including Mc Coy Tyner, The Fort Apache Band, Kenny Barron, and Jackie McLean. The group also calls upon a repertoire that mutually speaks to their past, featuring standards and originals.
The opening "Impressions" is taken at a more modest pace than Coltrane's signature treatment, although it still seems to catch Bartz off guard, his oddly inconclusive statement being somewhat of a head scratcher. Much more satisfying is his own "Uncle Bubba," which he first recorded with McCoy Tyner back in 1983. Things seem to further solidify with a nearly twelve minute run through Tyner's "Search for Peace." Bartz is heard at his most sublime, his restrained and whisper-like phrases unfolding like a flower. So too, Willis resists any temptation to utilize Tynerish block chords. His voicings and distinctive touch help to make the piece his own.
Slowing the tempo down from the original 1960 Blue Note version, Jackie McLean's "Capuchin Swing" is better heard for what it is-a head melody written over the changes of "Star Eyes." While they can probably rattle off chorus after chorus in their sleep, the quartet breathes new life into this framework proving how vital this vernacular still is to the jazz lexicon.
Drummer Al Foster integrates cymbals and tom fills into an organic whole during his solo statement on "Soulstice," a modal piece by Bartz that recalls Miles Davis' "So What." Williams sets the pace for the lilting and sunny numbers "Summer Serenade" and "Lotus Blossom." In fact, there is an air of newness in the approach given to these old standards that might make them the highlights of the entire disc. Bartz plays with a carefree style and wistful tone that is a pleasure, while Willis shapes his flow of phrases in a way that is distinctive to say the least.
While Buster Williams has a healthy share of solo space throughout, it might be equally rewarding to give a special listen to how he interacts with the music on a whole. The melody to "I Wish I Knew" propels itself via space between phrases and Williams interjects the optimal notes to fill the gaps both rhythmically and harmonically. There are many special moments of this type sprinkled throughout the program, although a puzzling sense of sameness seems to creep in at some point. Nonetheless, this is a fine debut with potential for further growth. It will be interesting to see what develops.
Impressions; Uncle Bubba; Search for Peace; Capuchin Swing; Soulstice; Crazy She Calls Me; Summer Serenade; Lotus Blossom; I Wish I Knew.
Gary Bartz: saxophones; Larry Willis: piano; Buster Williams: bass; Al Foster: drums.