[24 September 2002]
If, as I would like to imagine is the case, the jazz shelf of your record collection is heavily populated with Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, and Art Blakey albums, then this new recording should interest you. If your thus proven hard bop preferences incline towards the early ‘60s rather than the late ‘50s, even better. Finally, if you have recently felt in need of something stylistically grounded in that era, but contemporary rather than nostalgic in mood and attitude, then Breathing Room might just become your most played purchase of 2002.
This is a truly engaging set. For the performers, it represents the successful negotiation of some complex arrangements while still managing to retain the fire and directness such music demands. The consequences for the listener are many and pleasurable. Simply put,Breathing Room is a record you could play to someone who has lived and breathed jazz for the past forty years and they would instantly appreciate it as the genuine article. On the other hand, it is also something you could offer to someone just getting into the music, as a friendly and inviting gateway to further exploration.
So what makes this seemingly conventional, small group outing stand out from the myriad worthy but often-unremarkable post-bop efforts currently available? Nothing mysterious about the answer—good players, fine compositions and a group leader who has intelligence and a clear sense of purpose. Using, particularly, the work of Wayne Shorter as a creative launch-pad the group embark on a thorough but always entertaining examination of the many tonal and textural possibilities offered by one of jazz’ most enduring musical blueprints.
David Weiss leads a gifted team, made up of established (but still in jazz terms “young”) musicians—plus two who are objectively “young”. Drummer E.J. Strickland and his brother, Marcus (tenor), are still teenagers and their playing is youthful in all its most positive senses. The rest of the group have been part of the very impressive New Jazz Composers’ Octet, in which Weiss has a pivotal role. Dwayne Burno is a discreet but authoritative bassist and Xavier Davis plays piano ever more impressively with each new opportunity. Last, but never in my books least, comes Craig Handy, whose contributions to four of the seven tracks show that my favourite contemporary tenor player is also an unfairly gifted altoist.
Whether acting in unison, and there is an appropriately extensive amount of two and three man blowing, or in the many solo spots, the playing is confident, clever and emotionally uplifting. This is generally an “up” album—both in tempo and in mood. The song titles seem to suggest otherwise but there is undoubtedly much positive energy here, even if I am misreading its focus. This band has kick and direction, not as common a pairing these days as one would like. Drummer and bassist keep the groove flowing at all times. Strickland’s responses to and (initiations of) some very fancy time-changes without losing that pulse will do his future career no harm at all.
Weiss himself has often been overlooked as a player, not through malice, but because he is so very striking as a composer and arranger. Even in the overwhelming praise this new set has already garnered that has been the case. To put the record straight, he is a good enough trumpeter to be taken very seriously on that account alone. Even if he had the intellectual and organisational skills of Homer Simpson, he would warrant attention. His tone is what is usually termed “full-blooded” and is sometimes reminiscent of Kenny Dorham, but he has a nicely oblique approach to melody and soloing that is distinctive and provides for an unusually intimate experience, even on the most robust of numbers.
Of course, it is the addition of his decidedly non-Simpsonesque attributes that add weight to the project. From the opening cover of Shorter’s “Armageddon” to the grand finale, “Kickback”, a labyrinthine extension of Joe Henderson’s already intricate blues “The Kicker”, Weiss never runs short on ideas. He neither dominates nor takes a back seat as a soloist but his hand is always present, guiding and coaxing the best from his sidemen. Weiss, for a trumpeter, seems very sax influenced and his affinity with Handy and Marcus Strickland demonstrates that that empathy is not reserved for the giants of the past.
One more Shorter tune is covered (adapted is perhaps a better term), a very classy “Those Who Sit and Wait”. Davis delivers the most expansive of a number of assured solos here. Apart from that, there are three Weiss originals, four if you count “Kickback”, and one offering from Marcus Strickland. There is no discernible lapse in quality between old and new material, which speaks volumes about the overall character of the set. The title track has received the least support but I found its added length and slightly more introspective air a vital contribution to a more nuanced and sophisticated experience than hard bop often implies.
Actually, that “added extra” reveals itself right at the outset. “Armageddon” opens with some tasty but orthodox unison horns and you think to yourself, “Ah here we go, good no-nonsense, retro blowing.” Immediately, though, the tempo drops and it is as if the component parts of the opening phrases are being closely inspected to see if they have even more treasures to reveal than we first believed. Then the tenor sax picks up the pace with, as it were, additional knowledge newly absorbed. If that comes across as a little cerebral, fear not, it doesn’t sound like that—there is more than sufficient passion and muscle. However, it is the muscle of the thinking boxer rather than the fairground slugger.
A couple of highlights and I will leave you to rush out and investigate for yourself. In a break from the otherwise standard line-up, “Getaway” features Davis on electric piano. It is a masterstroke. Rich rubato opening, delicate double-time percussion, Handy in full flight and echoes of early-seventies’ jazz-funk (when the jazz half still was unashamedly jazz). Davis is cool yet very expressive and if Weiss fancies pursuing this avenue further, could find a whole new audience.
Not that he should lack one now. Anyone who fails to be moved by the wonderfully complete riff-resolution that binds together “Dark Places” will never like anything modern jazz has to offer. The soloists explore but that theme has all the solidity of a classic form, as important to this type of playing as the sonnet or the twelve bar blues are in other contexts. Solid is key term here. Not in any “pedestrian” sense but in a more architectural one. Strong foundations, historically and structurally, and plenty of freedom and imagination in the design that goes on top, that is how Breathing Room operates. And, believe me, the operation is wholly successful.