What is clear from one listen to The Winding Shell is that pianist Jesse Elder is a composer/arranger of some ambition. Changing time signatures and the harmonizing of alto and tenor are features of the music, as are interesting percussive dynamics and contrasts between softly voiced and more animated passages. Lively charge and pregnant pause coexist with absorbing juxtaposition in music where improvisation and structure strike a fine balance. Throw in some truly fine sax playing from four talented, distinctive voices and the result is both a challenging and rewarding listen.
The dramatic, confident opening of "Surrender"with Gary Thomas's tenor and Logan Richardson's alto harmonizing nicely over subtle percussive keyboard and bristling drumming from the very impressive Tyshawn Soreysets the stage for a probing solo from Thomas. Thomas feels his way slowly, but his playing soon gathers momentum and tears loose, fairly ripping at the seams. Bassist Christopher Tordini ushers in a few bars of repose before the catchy motif returns briefly before quietly fading out.
Elder keeps listeners on their toes, lowering and raising the tension deftly where such changing dynamics are perhaps best heard on "Solar Plexus." Impressive saxophonist Logan Richardson displays a strong, cutting tone on a lively intervention as the ensemble skips through some tight chord changes. The chords loosen, so to speak, and Richardson takes a more leisurely sounding solo. His robust tone contrasts nicely with the gruffer sound of Thomas and the long, smooth lines of tenorist Chris Cheek who contributes to three tracks.
Although very much a quintet outing where tight group harmonics is featured, most notable on the first few minutes of "The Thoughtful Nudge," the music appears to have been written primarily with two saxophones in mind. Elder's own interventions are about providing contrast and nudging the ensemble along, and apart from a short but lyrical solo on "Flight of the Pelican" his contributions are mainly percussive and rhythmic in nature, like the simple but effective piano vamp on "Red Paint" over which Cheek blows beautifully. The title track, an ambitious piece with the intensity of a Charles Mingus creation, is memorable for Elder's scurried playing which sounds like it was produced on a vibraphone made of icicles.
The four-part piano improvisation featuring Elder and Aya Nishina comes as a slightly odd coda, at least in terms of the album's continuity. It has more of a modern classical feel to it than of jazz, and is characterized by abstractions and somber mood on the one hand and repeated figures played with boldness on the other, where the distinct melodies is subdued and rhythm is chopped. This stop-start seventeen minute improvisation is further illustration of a singular musical mind at work.
Students of composition will surely find plenty to consider in an adventurous recording which reveals more with subsequent listening. Fans of modern, slightly off-the-wall jazz will no doubt recognize the passion, creativity and undoubted lyricism at the core of Elder's music.
Track Listing: Surrender; Solar Plexus; The Thoughtful Nudge; Flight Of The Pelican; Rotating Canvases; Kiss Rain; Red Paint; The Winding Shell; All Moments; I; II; III; IV.
Personnel: Logan Richardson: alto saxophone; Gary Thomas: tenor saxophone; Jess Elder: piano; Christopher Tordini: bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Chris Cheek: tenor saxophone; Jeremy Viner: tenor saxophone; Aya Nishina: piano.
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