Soprano saxophonist-flautist Jane Bunnett and trumpeter Larry Cramer are probably best known for their erudite mapping of Afro-Cuban jazz territory. But this prolific husband-and-wife team has maintained a circle of respected mainstream jazz figures as well. Illustrating her eclectic collaborative orientation, Bunnett’s acclaimed Ritmo+Soul (Blue Note, 2000) sought to combine the sacred dimensions of Afro-Cuban music with elements of North American gospel. So Spirituals & Dedications, a soulful exploration of African American music’s sanctified wellsprings, is less of a departure for Bunnett and Cramer than might first seem the case.
Produced by Cramer, but essentially a cooperative, leaderless session, the project taps the brilliance of Stanley Cowell (piano) and Dewey Redman (tenor sax), aided by veterans of Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana group: baritone Dean Bowman, acoustic bassist Kiernan Overs, and drummer Mark McLean. Cowell, who counts Art Tatum as a lifelong influence, has worked with Marion Brown, Max Roach, Bobby Hutcherson, Harold Land, Stan Getz, Charles Tolliver, and Jimmy and Percy Heath. Redman, one of jazz’s most innovative tenors, has matched his talents with some of the best, including Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman, Michael Brecker, Don Cherry, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, and Jack DeJohnette.
Soprano sax is not such a common jazz instrument, but Bunnett’s adroit style has evoked favorable comparisons with Steve Lacy (with whom she has studied) and Wayne Shorter. She steps out on “Don’s Light”, the album opener, communing with the spirit of pianist and composer Don Pullen (1944-1995). A lyrical tribute to her frequent collaborator, Bunnett’s composition opens with Redman’s mellow, evocative tenor solo. He trades leads with Bunnett, who crafts an elegant soprano counterpoint. Bowman’s wordless vocal break and understated single-phrase lyric toward the end substantiate the album’s spiritual tone, melding seamlessly with Cowell’s flowing gospel keyboard touch.
Cracking open Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s “A Laugh for Rory”, Bowman calls out twice, “Bright moments!”—to which the band responds in kind. Bowman elaborates, “Bright moments, like making love in a leaky waterbed at the Holiday Inn!” Then his maniacal laugh and Bunnett’s snappy, ‘60s-TV-theme flute conjure the tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top, triple-threat sax abandon that infused everything Kirk recorded. Echoing the master’s eccentric style, Bunnett’s overblown flute gives way to Cramer’s brightly muted trumpet solo. Then Redman and Cowell trade suggestive hard-bop solos before deferring to the rhythm section, giving McLean and Overs a chance to stretch out and ease into a roundup restatement of the sprightly theme.
The pensive “I’m Gonna Tell God,” a Cowell-Bowman duet, reveals the pianist’s restraint and subtlety as an accompanist. This is a fine vehicle for Bowman too, who captures the aura of long-suffering but undaunted human dignity at the core of this ageless spiritual.
Bowman wrote the lyrics for Cowell’s “Illusion Suite”, and he sketches the central theme as prelude to Bunnet’s lyrical, soaring flute lines, against some sweet rhythmic backing on trumpet and straight-ahead piano with just a hint of Latin swing. Cowell and Redman lock in a groove with an edge, a throaty sax trading off with some flowing, impressionistic keyboard work whose muscular command recalls McCoy Tyner’s best.
Tackling the Biblical fable “Shadrack” against the backing of Redman’s honking, wailing tenor and drummer McLean’s syncopated rhythmic figure, Bowman crafts a shuffling shout of praise. Cowell’s “Cal Massey” (1928-1972, in tribute to the influential free-jazz trumpeter and composer) swings with straight-out joy as Bunnett takes a runaway flute lead. On Clifford Jordan’s “Powerful Paul Robeson”, Bowman renders tribute and opens way to the hard-driving ensemble. Here as elsewhere, Bowman shows an eerie resemblance to Eddie Jefferson. Neither was blessed with what could be called a “beautiful voice”, but pipes and spirit they possess to spare.
With credits including Lester Bowie, Don Byron and the Screaming Headless Torsos, Bowman shows the ability to hold his own as a developing voice in the sparsely inhabited field of contemporary male jazz vocalists. He is at his best when he doesn’t allow his potent vibrato to take over, and when he casts high-art vocal prescriptions aside. Given the energy and passion at the heart of the spiritual tradition, and the power of the ensemble with which he works here, his is no easy challenge.
To wit, Bowman almost overruns “Nobody Knows (The Trouble I’ve Seen)” in duet with Redman’s sparse tenor, and comes close to the line with his opening shout on “Ecclusiatics”, by legendary bassist, bandleader and composer Charles Mingus. Bowman penned his own lyrics, and his heartfelt affinity for the work comes through against a potent instrumental weave. Given the influence Mingus exerted on Bunnett’s musical formation, this title was a natural for the project, as Mingus delved deeply into the “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” soul of jazz (check out the master’s Blues & Roots, Atlantic Jazz).
Heading out, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” reunites the full ensemble, producing some revealing and unexpected harmonic dimensions of this enduring hymn, renewing its quintessential spirit of human longing. In these anxious times, this seems an especially fitting close to a remarkably spirited and soulful jazz outing.