The only Blue Note recording under pianist Kenny Drew's leadership and the last to be released under his name for a thirteen-year period, during which time the pianist would relocate to Europe, Undercurrent is a strong outing by the gifted pianist, composer and session leader. In the latter capacity, his job is greatly facilitated by a frontline of saxophonist Hank Mobley and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, whose instant compatibility had been established just weeks earlier on Mobley's sterling Roll Call (Blue Note, 1960). Moreover, the rhythm team of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Louis Hayes had become one of the more efficient power plants in jazz because of its nightly duties with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet during the same year as its best-selling At the Lighthouse (Riverside, 1960), which included the hit single "Sack O' Woe."
Undercurrent has nothing as viscerally infectious as the Adderley tune but is an admirable program of Drew originals, ranging from the modal, streaming title piece to the self-descriptive "Funk- Cosity," a sort of fleshed-out variation on Bobby Timmons' "Moanin'." "Lion's Den" is a welcome change of mood and pace, moving to a major key and an alternating pedal tone/straight-ahead harmonic-rhythmic pattern. Next is the beboppish "The Pot's On," an elliptical melody that yields to the reassuringly warm inventiveness at which Mobley has few if any peers. "Groovin' the Blues," an ordinary but appealing line, would be an engaging finger-popper were it not such a close twin of "Funk-Cosity," and the closer, "Ballade," is a once-through set piece, an appealing romantic melody stated with formal grace and simplicity.
If none of the tunes is strikingly original or memorable, the same might be said of Drew's otherwise superlative post-Powell piano work. Certainly among the highlights is the opening title tune, set up by an electrifying 38-second introduction: drums and bass walk off eight bars at a flaming tempo, Drew adds a running baroque figure for the next eight, tenor and trumpet harmonize in thirds for the next sixteen then play in unison over a pedal tone for eight more, finally re-harmonizing in thirds for the last eight before Mobley's tenor is suddenly ejected into the jet stream for the first solo. The latter player is simply wondrous on this and each of his solo turns, as consistently rewarding as he is risk-taking, and clearly in command during the same year that produced his masterpiece, Soul Station (Blue Note, 1960). Hubbard, the comparative newcomer, isn't as fluent as Mobley but complements his frontline companion with a more aggressive, even puckish approach, alternating between repeated percussive motifs and a soaring, passionate lyricism.
Given the size of the ensemble, the quality of the musicians and the blowing room for each of the soloists, it's perhaps small wonder that Undercurrent falls just short of a personal triumph for the leader (though arguably essential to any Mobley fan). But as a democratic and exemplary Blue Note session with strong hands vigorously played by five proven winners, this RVG remaster deserves a place alongside more heralded recordings during a truly golden age in the music.
Undercurrent; Funk-Cosity; Lion's Den; The Pot's On; Groovin' The Blues; Ballade.
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