Several years have elapsed since Lucian Ban and Alex Harding's last CIMP collaboration, but their artistic rapport has only deepened in the interim. Their latest project carries a signifier that stresses the novelty of the instrumentation. The duo dispenses with string bass completely. In its stead, Bob Stewarts' bulbous, bell-shaped horn sits as co-resident of the bottom end, right alongside Harding's heavyweight sax. Stewart slides naturally into the brass bass role standard to early-20th Century street bands, but also steps into the foreground with an advanced technique well suited to soloing when the occasion arises.
Harding comes from the harder-hitting side of the baritone bullpen. His big, blustery sound and attack spins off precedents set by Pepper Adams and Pat Patrick, and in some ways it echoes his contemporary James Carterin terms of sheer muscle and might, and a penchant for blues and gospel. Allen, a Harding protégé, brings a more measured element on tenor and contrasts effectively with the co-leader as cool to his hot. With his supple and unassumingly emotive phrasing, Allen reminds me a bit of Jim Pepper, especially on the gorgeous ballad-bred harmonies of "Hymn. Ban's playing blends stylistic slivers of Andrew Hill and McCoy Tyner with an abiding personal elegance and adroit attention to detail. On the opening "Cajun Stomp he drops a pithy quote from Monk's "Well You Needn't into a terpsichorean solo that nimbly negotiates the choppy second-line rhythm set up by drummer Derrek Phillips.
The ensemble's forays into more abstract playing are less consistent. The longwinded "Bluesness Suite starts strong with a rambunctious duo exchange between Harding and Phillips, but loses focus and momentum in its later sections and ends up seeming stitched together and overwrought. At one-third the length and sans Ban and Phillips, the chamberish "Other Voices works better, but the horn interplay still feels a bit forced. "Mexican Hat Dance lingers in a strangely dour and minimalist preamble before alighting on a sunny Latinized hard bop rhythm that recalls classic Horace Silver. A return to the jaunty street-suited rhythms celebrated on the opener succeeds in bringing the session full circle.
One of the disc's best tracks is also its most conventionally structured. "Spirit Take My Hand dips deep in a gospellish well and the results are beautifully relaxed and bluesy, replete with Harding's vocal affirmations. The robust riff-driven improvisations of the saxophones weave beautifully with Stewart's warm and rotund counterpoint. Phillips lays down a loping cymbal beat and Ban comps sparsely to complete the down-home package.
Ban and Harding's past projects stand as worthwhile entries in their respective discographies. This date continues the streak, and despite a few minor flaws, it's a strong showing from everyone involved.
Cajun Stomp; Hymn; Muhal
Lucian Ban: piano; Alex Harding: baritone saxophone; J.D. Allen: tenor saxophone; Bob
Stewart: tuba; Derrek Phillips: drums. Recorded July 20, 2005, Canton, NY.