Lots of people are going to be talking about this record. For good reason, admittedly, because bassist Miroslav Vitous dropped off the scene a while agoto, among other things, amass a collection of orchestral samplesand has only just come back with his first record in a decade. This is the same man who played with Miles Davis and Chick Corea, who helped found the epic fusion group Weather Report, who brought John McLaughlin and Jan Hammer together. Back in the old days, of course.
And that's not counting his work as a leader, which is formidable indeed, and which is one reason Universal Syncopations justly sits in the spotlight. But ironically Vitous has always seemed more of a team player than anything else, and the new recording does nothing to contradict that fact. He's joined by a crew of long-time collaborators, including saxophonist Jan Garbarek, whom he described in a recent AAJ interview as "like a musical brother." Rounding the quintet out are pianist Chick Corea, guitarist John McLaughlin, and drummer Jack DeJohnette... one big, incestuous family. In such company, one does not lay low. Get on or get off, as they say.
And so it's a pleasure to hear the trio piece "Bamboo Forest" launch the disc with a high note, Garbarek soaring on soprano saxophone while Vitous and DeJohnette hover lightly around an upbeat groove. The twists and turns that pop up here and there feel natural. Next comes the meaty quintet piece "Univoyage," with a greater degree of complexity both in composition and improvisation.
John McLaughlin sounds unobtrusive, fresh and clean here; Chick Corea, as he has done so often on record, serves as a sort of agreeable glue keeping everyone together. What evolves over the next hour of music is a barely-restrained modern jazz voyage that feels natural but still a bit edgy. Even during shimmering moments like on "Sun Flower," the record rarely nestles down into a comfortable zone.
When Vitous breaks away from his usual role as collaborator, conversational partner and foil, he delivers some memorable solo passages. Short, interlocking phrases dot the record, simultaneous bursts of energy barely separable into action and reaction. Pared down combinations like the reconvened trio on "Beethoven" or the bass-drum duo on "Medium" provide direct examples of this kind of interaction.
Universal Syncopations is a direct statement of identity, but more the shared than the individual kind. One look at the photos in the liner notes and you'll know these five men take their work very seriously. And it shows.
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