Drummer/composer Billy Mintz
has a long career of enhancing the music of others with his percussive artistry, everyone from saxophonist Lee Konitz
to pianist Hal Galper
, to clarinet master Perry Robinson
. His own discography as a leader is small, with frequent revisitations of a handful of original compositions that are as distinctive and as worthy of the multiple version approach as the music of Thelonious Monk. He writes small masterpieces and turns his ensembles loose on them, resulting in a recent handful of classic recordings: Beautiful You
(Origin Records, 2004); Billy Mintz Quartet
(Thirteenth Note Records, 2013); and The Two Bass Band
(Thirteenth Note Records, 2015).
With Ugly Beautiful
, Mintz moves into the realm of the "commercially dubious" double CDdubious commercially, perhaps, but artistically a big chance-taking leap, thatfor those who are ready and preparedcan pay off big time: see 2016's America' National Parks
(Cuneiform Records) by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith
; or Lovers
by guitarist Nels Cline
. Mintz was ready and prepared. Joined by long-term collaborators, the band is a quintet with a two sax front line that plays with a remarkable precision/abandonment dynamic. Saxophonists John Gross
and Tony Malaby
wail with a "let freedom ring" manifesto: weavers of raspy, ragged lines rather than seekers of smooth unison grooves. The energyto pick just one exampleof "Smear" rips and roars, with Mintz driving the momentum from the drummer's seat. "Dit" shifts from frenetic hive activity to fluid swing, with keyboardist (mostly pianist here) Roberta Piket playing with an unrestrained recklessness (reckless like a fox) that slips into a crisp angularity bumping along inside her fellow rhythm section-er's rolling groove
And never has a studio recording sounded more like it was recorded live. Loose-limbed spontaneity reigns, from the double set's wandering opener, "Angels," to the second disc's closer, "Cannonball (extended)."
Throughout the sax guys explore the "out there" side of their artistry. Pianist/keyboardist Roberta Piket
solos and comps with exceptional originality and inspiration, and modernizes the sounds with her Fender Rhodes, Nord Keyboards, Hammond B3 chops. "Tumba," the eleven minute opening tune of disc 2, blows in on an electric keyboard storm front that gels into a mid-sixties John Coltrane groove, with Mintz percolating, Piket digging deep into hypnotic McCoy Tyner chords. Five minutes in the horns enter, expansive and orchestral, before Malaby, on soprano sax, slips into a sinuous, mysterious exposition.
Commercially, who knows how successful this one will be. How successful will any jazz CD be these days? Artistically, Ugly Beautiful
is a triumph. Billy Mintz, with a finely-focused vision, had a lot to say, and he and this band said it with an undiluted integrity. It is at times wild and free, other times reflective and beautiful, always in a distinctly off kilter, Mintz-ian way.