Trumpeter David Weiss is best known for helming, writing for, and arranging for the New Jazz Composers Octet. And the Octet is best known for recording two albums with Freddie Hubbard in the years after his lip went, before his death. These recordings—and the NJCO’s other work—crackle with life. Yet Weiss stood somewhat in the shadows of Hubbard’s decline.
In addition, Weiss has worked selflessly with other bands dedicated to the compositions of Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan, in addition to getting trumpeter Charles Tolliver to record his long-neglected big band charts. He is, in short, a powerhouse jazz musician who has operated for decades behind a veil. 2010, however, is looking more like a coming-out party.
Weiss’ new band, Point of Departure, is named for the bold, classic 1964 album by Andrew Hill, and it plays with an appropriate crackle and daring—a fiery version of “inside” music that shows flashes of the “outside” as well. Snuck In is a (mostly) live recording of the band from a 2008 gig at The Jazz Standard, and it snaps and oozes with color.
First, this is a great band. J.D. Allen has been making outstanding music with a trio in recent years, constructing urgent, new versions of jazz that first started to flower in the ‘60s. Weiss himself plays with a clarion crispness and not a trace of easy sentimentality. Like Allen, he always seems to be chasing an interesting note, usually finding it.
The rhythm section is what gives this band its novelty. Rather than piano, which was the chording instrument of choice on nearly all that great post-bop music of the 1960s, Point of Departure employs electric guitar. This gives the whole endeavor a different shade—and a refreshing one. The guitarist is Nir Felder, a Berklee grad from the NY suburbs who is fresh as a plate of sizzling fajitas. Felder adds tang to tunes by Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Andrew Hill, and Charles Moore. Bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jamire Williams (Robert Glasper’s trio) keep things cooking in dramatic, polyrhythmic form.
If Weiss’ arrangements for the NJCO and other larger bands are precise and lush, then these tunes are loose and ragged in the best ways. Hancock’s “I Have a Dream” starts with the horns blowing conversationally over a splashing rhythm, until the melody emerges slowly and organically from the fray. Weiss and Allen never come together in easy unison—why do things the easy way? They blow over a messy groove rather than anything clean or utterly certain, and so the listener has to trust the feeling rather than some set of rules. Almost 14 minutes of cooking, but it never gets boring.
Tony Williams’ “Black Comedy” (originally from Miles in the Sky) is a straight-up burner, with the band wading easily and deeply into free territory without every abandoning tonality. “Erato” by Andrew Hill is a gracious ballad that nevertheless opens up a great free space over which the band can play. In each case, whether the band is charging ahead or laying back, Weiss and Point of Departure establish a space of surprise, where the music seems to be developing with form but not boundary. It’s a neat trick that too few groups have tried to pull off since the free-bop of the ‘60s dissolved into other styles.
The two tunes by Charles Moore are as intriguing as anything else here. Moore, a trumpet player out of Detroit who even ardent jazz fans may not know, was playing adventurous music that ought to be covered more often. “Number 4” uses shifting time signatures to create a rolling, foreign landscape. Weiss’ playing is spectacular: wandering and dark, clarion at times, free of the usual blues or diatonic patterns. There are moments when Weiss seems like the Freddie Hubbard of Ornette’s Free Jazz double quartet, yet at other moments, he seems as introspective as Chet Baker. “Snuck In” is a curlicue of a tune, hard-driving but obscure in turns, the pattern of the tune flowing then stuttering. Felder’s somewhat muted comping is still driving and fluid, and under Allen’s solo, it cuts in and out to create a feeling of tension and release, freedom and restriction.
It is thrilling to hear these strong echoes of the second great Miles Davis Quintet, particularly refracted through compositions not associated with the band. Hearing Weiss and Allen probe this style again, it seems clear that nearly-but-not-entirely-free playing, framed by intricate ensemble arrangements, didn’t get a full airing in its own day. Point of Departure is just original enough, with Felder bringing a fresh groove to it all, to make this an essential contemporary recording rather than some kind of throwback gimmick.
David Weiss is still serving the past with Snuck In, but he seems equally passionate about the future. One is inclined to root for some of his original compositions to make it into the band’s book as time goes by. This is a group—and a superb trumpet player—from whom we must hear more.