In his book New York Is Now, Phil Freeman describes the beginnings of a shift in the audience for jazz/improvised music, as practiced by musicians furthering the music of ‘60s avant-garde musicians such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and Albert Ayler. Freeman’s book concentrates on musicians like pianist Matthew Shipp, guitarist Joe Morris, and saxophonist Daniel Carter, all stalwarts of the downtown New York scene centered around The Knitting Factory, and all recording for independent labels. Freeman describes how, at some point in the ‘90s, an audience for their brand of improvised music opened up in the avant-rock camp. (A primary example he gives is when the David S. Ware quartet opened for Sonic Youth at the Hammerstein Ballroom to an enthusiastic response.) It’s easy to see how fans of so-called post-rock bands like Tortoise and Isotope 217 could follow trails to potential sources such as Can, Neu!, Soft Machine, and also to an avant-garde jazz musician like Eric Dolphy. (Dolphy’s Out to Lunch, recorded for Blue Note in 1964, has always struck me as a predecessor to Tortoise and Isotope 217—perhaps it’s the march rhythms and vibraphone). From Dolphy it’s easy to go into many directions, to Cecil, Coltrane, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and then, as Freeman says, to younger musicians such as the ones mentioned above.
Certainly lying in wait to be championed by any discriminating and adventurous music fans is the work of pianist Andrew Hill and the musicians who he has influenced, like saxophonist Greg Osby and pianist Jason Moran. Hill’s reputation was cemented early on in his career by a number of beautiful albums recorded, both as a leader and a sideman, for the Blue Note label in the ‘60s including Black Fire (1964), Judgment (1965) and Dialogue (1965—under Bobby Hutcherson’s leadership). His music is darkly lyrical, percussive, and kaleidoscopic, and he presented, at his first Blue Note recording date (Joe Henderson’s Our Thing) a fully developed and original style that took Thelonius Monk’s music as a starting point and abstracted its elements in a very personal way. Hill is still releasing excellent albums today (see his recent Palmetto date Dusk), and there are a number of talented musicians around that are building on his innovations.
This brings us back to Osby. For a young man, he has a long discography (Inner Circle is his 12th date as a leader for Blue Note) and has tenured in Hill’s ensembles, amongst others. His Blue Note releases have been regarded critically as hit and miss, from the unsuccessful jazz/rap hybrid of 3-D Lifestyles (1993), to the excellent live jazz recording Banned in New York (1998). Inner Circle may be the high point of his recording career—the album that proponents of his style knew he could make, but had been eluding him.
On Inner Circle, Osby is joined by frequent collaborator Jason Moran on piano, Stefon Harris on vibes, and Taurus Mateen and Eric Harland on bass and drums, respectively. The ensemble sound is reminiscent of those found on certain aforementioned Blue Note dates of the ‘60s, particularly Hill’s Judgment (which is a quartet date featuring Bobby Hutcherson on vibes and Elvin Jones on drums) and Eric Dolphy’s famous Out to Lunch sextet date featuring Kenny Dorham, Joe Henderson, and Hutcherson. It’s a luminous sound that revolves around the combination of piano and vibes, anchored by Mateen’s warm and steady bass and Harland’s tasteful and earthy drumming. Osby ducks and dodges over and through the ensemble, with beautiful, angular ideas; a burnished tone; and exacting confidence.
The compositions are fresh and varied, and the ensemble work well conceived and executed. And though it takes the ‘60s aesthetic as its starting point, it’s not derivative music. It’s fresh and original, and builds on the idiom. Beyond that, and more importantly, its depth, intensity and human warmth makes for compelling listening.
The disc starts off with “Entruption”, a strangely propulsive and dark-hued tune in broken-up odd time signatures. As on the rest of the record, Osby is judicious with solo space: Harris and Moran are featured here, and Osby chips in a fine solo. It’s amazing how the group is so uninhibited and earthy over the tune’s difficult frame. They play directly and confidently as if over a familiar 12-bar blues, but the tune’s odd underpinning gives everything an exotic, unidentifiable twist. Osby lists, as influences, haiku; numerology; and the form and design of architecture, physics and geometry. It’s audible. “Entruption”, for example, is apparently based on the numerology of his name.
“Stride Logic” is another perfectly natural, yet somehow odd piece in a forward pulsing vein. A couple years ago Osby showed off a flair for ensemble writing on his Invisible Hand session (which featured, incidentally, Andrew Hill), but the overall release was a bit off balance and some of its arrangements felt heavy and forced. Not so on this disc. “Stride Logic”, for example, features an intricate arrangement, with different instruments taking turns at the melody and background: it creates the effect of a larger group. In disposition, it’s a kind of funky off-kilter performance, again (and I think it’s the combination of the vibes and piano that create the effect) in dark hues: blues and purples.
“Diary of the Same Dream” brings things to a whisper. Osby opens the piece lamenting over a single-struck vibraphone chord, which wobbles and decays into the ether. It’s followed by a beautiful exposition of a ruminative and abstract melody with a free flowing accompaniment from Harland’s brushes. The piece breathes naturally, with the band fading in and out around Osby’s beautiful tone.
Another highlight is “Fragmatic Decoding”, which comes straight out of Osby’s math thing. It sounds something like a haywire machine, with a climbing spiral of a riff played by the piano and vibes in unison. It is as if it is informed by some ultimately predictable, but seemingly chaotic system in its arrangement; the theme spirals out, and Osby takes a brief solo, and the vibes take the spotlight, only to surrender it to Osby again after a seemingly random stretch.
“Inner Circle” has an inventive arrangement as well, reminiscent of a concerto for an orchestra and soloist, but built on a small scale. Each player gets a window to fill within the early exposition and is in turn answered by the ensemble, then it’s off to an odd time funk swing—as satisfying as it is strange.
For all the album’s innovation and novelty (including a cover of a Björk tune, “All Neon Like”), it closes on a traditional note with Charles Mingus’ “Self Portrait in Three Colors”. It’s fitting to close such an adventurous and yet grounded session with a reading of the iconoclastic Mingus who, though part of the “canon” today, guaranteed his place there through similar advancements upon existing music.
For those familiar with Osby, but not quite sold on his previous CDs, this is one to plunk down for. And for any fans of the so-called post rock scene centered around Chicago and bands like Tortoise and Isotope 117, do yourself a favor and pick this one up it’s surely one of the best releases of the year.