Pull something in all directions at once and odds are it'll end up stuck in the middle.
The thought came to mind while listening to The Reprieve by the Blake Wilner Quartet, which claims influences ranging from Monk (minimal traditionalism) to Coltrane (maximal progressivism) to Philip Glass (maximal minimalism). The songs range from original swing to modern takes of Bob Marley and Tom Waits.
Sounds like a recipe for schizophrenia. So it's a surprise how consistent and middle-class the group's third album is.
Make no mistake, it's a good middle, occupying that rare category of fusion that's intelligent and user-friendly. It's just that much of it hides in a vanilla wrapper. In fact, it sounds better on subsequent listens as some ideas come into sharper focus.
The title track, halfway through the album, opens as a moody but nondescript ballad before shifting after a couple of minutes to a bass-fed "Spain"-like pacing that injects urgency into the remaining seven minutesbut in an on-again, off-again manner. There are too many lulls where the bass alone carries the tune and solos noodle rather than develop. Still, the overall experience is rewarding, due largely to saxophonist Simon Allen's dressing up what could be a standard fusion solo with a heavy free jazz accent.
Allen is the backbone to some of the album's best songs, notably the ballads "Adams '47" and "Beaulieu," where he separates sincerity from syrupy by mostly keeping clichés at bay until the inevitable drawn-out high climax notes are called for. It helps the quartet is engaged in material above and beyond typical contemporary farea credit to Wilnerwith strong tonal arrangements and just enough departures from familiarity to keep songs from slipping into the auditory background.
Wilner's contributions as a leader tend to outshine those as a player, as he offers straightforward licks (call it the Bill Evans influence) that are Pat Metheny-friendly but lack the subtle complexities the best players in this genre are capable of. Double bassist Oli Hayhurst is no Mingus (another claimed influence), especially in this setting, but does well in what might be called the role of a thoughtful laymanneither simplistic nor so complex most listeners are left behind. Drummer Jacob Smededaard executes the complex beats he's assigned with more precision than recklessness, probably the best approach since his fellow players aren't exactly going over the top themselves.
The Reprieve is an album modern jazz fans will generally find worth listening to, and it's certainly a step above much of what's on radio these days. But it may not grab the attention of hardcore fans into unrestrained fusion like Bill Bruford's Earthworks and modern mainstream giants such as Dave Holland's quintet. There's much to listen for, especially when they set aside Marley interpretations and focus on their own voice. The well-known songs may be more comfortable, butas the cliché goesthe path less-traveled is where real promise lies.
Track Listing: New York Trilogy; Women; Redemption Song; Adams '47; The Reprieve; Beaulieu; Scip; Take Me Home
Personnel: Blake Wilner, guitar; Simon Allen, saxophone; Oli Hayhurst, bass, Jacob Smedegaard, drums