If you’ve been following the idiosyncratic career of jazz maverick and clarinetist Don Byron, then Edsel Gomez is a name you respect. Appearing as a pianist in Mr, Byron’s “Six Musicians” band on two recordings, Mr. Gomez was clearly as a big talent, combining Latin and jazz techniques with a huge and sympathetic ear. You heard he was playing in saxophonist David Sanchez’s band, and you knew that good things were in the offing.
But you had no idea it would be this good.
Cubist Music is a bold and definitive statement and as strong a jazz piano debut as I’ve heard since Brad Mehldau made his first trio disc. It compares favorably with the first recordings by Jason Moran. But maybe my expectations should have been greater because, at the age of 43. Mr. Gomez is not a green youngster. After the standard stint at Berklee (where he ran into Byron on the Boston scene), Mr. Gomez moved to Brazil from 1987 to 1997, where he played up a storm. Settling in New York, it didn’t take long for Mr. Gomez to land in two of the best jazz groups in the world. It’s notable that this album was recorded quite a while ago—his out-of-date web site indicates that Cubist Music was supposed to released in 2002—and has only now found distribution.
Whatever held things up, jazz fans everywhere should be glad that Mr. Gomez’s vision is finally available. Cubist Music consists of a dozen originals by the leader (and one Byron tune), each one gripping, dramatic, and arranged with colorful care. Moreover, the collection even comes with a guiding philosophy—the notion that the soloists should try to organize their improvisations motivically, discovering in the tunes and their own riffing small cells of melody (Mr. Gomez calls these melodic fragments “unitifs”) that can be repeated, combined, and transformed to create solo statements of power and unity. And while I’m not sure that all the soloists uniformly follow Mr. Gomez’s advice, there is strong evidence that the soloing here is unusually thoughtful and driven—a far cry from the aimless jazz noodling that even the best players can lapse into on a boring or rote date.
It helps, of course, that Mr. Gomez has brought in some of the best players in New York for this date. There are a handful of trios and two piano solos, but most of the tracks feature at least two stellar reed players. In addition to Mr. Byron and Mr. Sanchez, Edsel has got Miguel Zenon on alto, Steve Wilson on alto or flute, and Gregory Tardy on various reeds. There simply isn’t any room for slacking in this kind of company. And so the uptempo tunes like “NYC Taxi Ride” bounce with polyrhythmic lightning, with Steve Wilson darting every which way like Ornette on steroids. “Ladybug” is punctuated by rumbles of piano between three-part reed harmony, with solos by Wilson, Sanchez and Byron that tear up the digital grooves of the CD. Mr. Byron is particularly elegant amidst the rhythmic chaos. If you don’t know him, then think of a jazz rubber band and not the older styles of jazz clarinet from the swing era. Mr. Gomez also uses flutes and bass clarinet to lovely effect on “Coqui Serenade”, showing a knack for orchestration in an Ellingtonian style.
But it would be wrong to imply that the reed players steal the show. Mr. Gomez plays with command throughout. His “cubist” technique of developing motifs serves him equally well on the daring numbers and on the ballads. “Wolfville” is a gentle theme for trio that uses repetition with great care. And the ballad feature for bassist Drew Gress playing arco, “Empty House”, gives Mr. Gomez the chance to play a brilliant conversation between the bass, his left hand, and his right hand, always keeping the piano’s mockingbird motif in play. What is perhaps most intriguing is how Mr. Gomez weaves this birdlike theme into other tunes as well—the tribute to “Caravan” composer and Ellington trombonist Juan Tizol, and the Eddie Palmieri solo piano tribute, “The ‘Adoracion’ Variations”.
Mr. Gress and drummer Bruce Cox play in effortless lockstep from start to finish. Whether playing straight 4/4 time on “The 3-3 Clave” or considerable polyrhythm on “To The Lord”, these guys lock it down. But that is the state of Edsel Gomez’s art. Cubist Music presents a certain vision of where modern jazz is headed and, as important, how to get there with a sense of heart and drive.
Here’s hoping that Mr. Gomez’s next release does not sit on a shelf for too long. He is a major talent, and he can’t or shouldn’t hide himself in other people’s bands for too much longer. With any luck, Cubist Music will convince some record producer that Edsel Gomez knows what he wants to do. I’ll be more than happy to follow him, I can tell you that.