In recent months, bassist Reid Anderson has worked with Mark Turner and Kurt Rosenwinkel, Stefon Harris, Orrin Evans, and others. His first two albums on the Fresh Sound label, 1997’s Dirty Show Tunes and 1999’s Abolish Bad Architecture, were stunning and quite overlooked. Featuring Mark Turner, pianist Ethan Iverson, and drummers Jordi Rossy and Jeff Ballard respectively, both albums revealed not only Anderson’s brilliant compositional style, but also his brand of what one might call serious-minded humor. Anderson now has followed up these superb efforts with The Vastness of Space, a project that is entirely different and perhaps even more original and daring. Instead of piano we have Ben Monder on guitar. Altoist Andrew D’Angelo and tenorist Bill McHenry comprise the frontline, with Marlon Browden behind the drums. This is the lineup that Anderson performed with live during the course of 2000.
The overall vibe of the band is raw and loose, allowing Anderson’s new batch of tunes to breathe and flow with an easy-grooving effortlessness. Many of the melodies have an almost hymnal quality, and the chord progressions and beats are sometimes closer to rock than jazz. But that doesn’t make it "jazz-rock" or fusion of any familiar sort. Neither does it fit comfortably into avant-garde or mainstream post-bop camps. Even more so than Anderson’s two previous albums, this music is totally uncategorizable, and at the same time entirely accessible. Nearly every track has what can only be called a hook, making each listen a satisfying return to melodies or chordal patterns that quickly become etched in the brain. Some of these tunes could by rights become contemporary standards. Anderson is that good.
This is not at all a "blowing" record. "Prehensile Dream," in fact, features hardly any soloing at all. The mesmerizing melody is simply repeated, with increasing urgency, until the same haunting guitar arpeggios that began the tune return to end it. Similarly, "Reclusive" and "Melismatic Clouds of Joy" build melodies into ecstatic yet mournful cries, harnessing the power of the full ensemble to drive the point home. One would probably need to go back to an album like Nefertiti to hear this kind of mantra-like emphasis on melody in a modern jazz ensemble.
As horn stylists go, D’Angelo and McHenry couldn’t be more different, and Anderson takes advantage of this in many ways during the course of the album. On "The Owl," for instance, D’Angelo’s solo is almost entirely "out," his playful screeches contrasting with McHenry’s careful, yet energetic, dissection of the quickly moving changes. At other times the two-horn interplay is as subtle as that heard on "Foxy," where D’Angelo plays the slow, singable melody before McHenry takes it over, continuing it underneath D’Angelo’s solo. Ben Monder is also a tremendously important part of the band’s sound, comping clean, mellow chords and contributing fine solos on several cuts. His fuzztone workout toward the end of "The Captain" is a highlight. Marlon Browden’s loose yet cohesive time feel suits the music perfectly, and his quasi-rubato free-for-all during the finale, "Silence Is the Question," give the piece most of its dynamic shape.
The Fresh Sound label is building a reputation for solid releases from some of jazz’s most underappreciated artists. The Vastness of Space is surely one of the best projects the label has released to date. It is also a new breakthrough for Reid Anderson, a bassist and composer of rare gifts who simply must be heard and appreciated by a wider audience.
1. The Enthusiast 2. Talons 3. Foxy 4. Prehensile Dream 5. The Owl 6. Reclusive 7. Melismatic Clouds of Joy 8. The Captain 9. Silence Is the Question