[24 April 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Dennis Rollins radiates positive vibes with his Velocity Trio, an unusual trombone-organ-drums combo whose first album The 11th Gate is out on Motéma Music. For one thing, Rollins writes to please—he composes memorable heads informed by funk and Latin genres, with enough melodic integrity to please jazz purists. Then there’s his playing. Rollins plays his trombone with a beautiful burnished tone, bouncing and swooping into his notes on little catenaries of sound, reaching out to listeners with a grin and a handshake. He’s also got an Aquarian numerological thing going on. Motéma had the spiritual wisdom to release The 11th Gate on 11/11/11, the day Rollins turned 47, and you’ll notice that four plus seven equals 11. (They released it digitally, that is; the physical CD had to wait until January.) Naturally the trio has included 11 tracks here, the better to usher in Rollins’s “universal paradigm shift, an emergence into our authentic selves”.
My authentic self tells me they had to pad this album to reach 11 tracks. Hammond organist Ross Stanley and drummer Pedro Segundo each get a short solo interlude; Rollins takes two of those, plus a multitracked trombone chorale that closes the album solemnly but not very memorably. That leaves six proper songs, still a good length for a jazz album, to show off this band’s impressive chops and interplay.
Opening song “Samba Galactica” punches out of the speakers with a tricky rhythm, Segundo skittering around the beats while Rollins uses some electronic device to harmonize with himself. The apparently ambidextrous Stanley handles the bassline with his left hand; his right hand either harmonizes closely with Rollins’s trombone, plays remarkably fluid solos, or stretches out on thick washes of sound that make you say, “Ooh, Hammond organ!”
The stop-time “Emergence” has been billed as a tribute to organist Larry Young, and its open chords and chromatic progressions evoke Young’s playing on Tony Williams’s “Emergency”. Stanley’s right hand does some adventurous soloing here and Rollins approves, at one point purring like a trombone kitten. “Ujamma” switches between a straightforward blues feel and a beat-stretching head. Stanley plays around with some cool metallic tone colors, and the whole thing swells to a magnificent peak about three minutes in.
Requisite slow song “The Other Side” is a bossa nova tribute to Rollins’s opulent sound. “The Big Chill” moves between funk and swing; Rollins breaks out the wah wah, and Stanley’s left hand adapts the head into a complicated bass ostinato. The trio also plays a groovy cover of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance”, at times breaking down the meter so confidently they seem to have a psychic connection.
This is all fine, accomplished stuff, but The 11th Gate is ultimately too tidy to set anyone’s world on fire. Solos are inventive but never outlandish; the chord changes go to unexpected places, but they never astonish. The album sounds immaculate, and you get the sense these guys knew what they were doing every step of the way. They’ve made a solid and professional straight-ahead jazz record. That’s not exactly a universal paradigm shift, but it’ll at least keep you awake until your enlightenment kicks in.