Jason Moran's latest Blue Note offering, Black Stars, features the great saxophonist Sam Rivers with Moran's working trio of Nasheet Waits (drums) and Taurus Mateen (bass). Moran is a young exploratory player with echoes of Andrew Hill and Jackie Byard in his playing. Rivers appeared with both Hill and Byard in the '60s on Blue Note albums such as his own Fuschia Swing Song (Blue Note, 1964) with Byard, and Bobby Hutcherson's Dialog (Blue Note, 1965) with Hill. An additional musical relation is that Nasheet's father, Freddie, played with Hill on a series of his late '60s Blue Note Records. So we have a master of '60s exploratory jazz with a second generation of like-minded musicians. It's a tantalizing lineup, and the album delivers on its promise, with a few caveats.
The music is abstract and cerebral but is often possessed of a sinister groove, and many passages have a kind of crystalline beauty. The first number, "Foot Under Foot", is an asymmetrical Moran theme built in the mould of Andrew Hill's Pumpkin (Black Fire, Blue Note, 1963) and Bobby Hutcherson's Black Circle (Stick Up!, Blue Note, 1966). Rivers' tenor has lost none of its heft over the years, and the searching intelligence it projects has grown only quicker.
Three tracks explore different angles of similar terrain. Rivers' "Earth Song" has an ending that slows down with ominous deliberation. Moran's "Skitter In" has something of a blustery late-October atmosphere in its unison tenor and piano trills. "Draw the Light Out", performed by the trio, suggests Vince Guaraldi's famous Charlie Brown theme interpreted by an advanced alien civilization. It's lively and atmospheric music that sounds new.
"Summit" begins with a prayerful Rivers flute invocation set to sparse and beautiful piano accompaniment. Rivers possesses a full and round flute tone, the most beautiful that I've heard in jazz, and his virtuoso playing is lithe and liquid. His flute is also featured on the gem, "The Sun at Midnight", a luminous ballad that is reminiscent of Eric Dolphy's flute music on his album Outward Bound (New Jazz, 1960) which featured, coincidentally, Jackie Byard on piano.
"Say Peace" is a poised and meditative piano/tenor duet. "Sound It Out" begins with Rivers at the piano, evoking Cecil Taylor, before he enters on flute, apparently overdubbed. I wondered if Moran would take over on the keys when Rivers switched instruments, but that seems not to be the case. Ultimately, it's a deep-hued and vibrant piece, short and concise, and satisfyingly balanced. And it's a sign of Moran's generosity of spirit and humility that he has Rivers close the record.
The other piano feature is "Out Front", a solo blues by Moran that is most winning and in character with the rest of the record in the mysterious introduction of an ominous repeated semitone with abstract flurries above it. It quickly develops into a fragmented modern stride. It stands out on the record, and not in an unreservedly good way. Although Moran is talented and can play this style well, one is aware that he is playing in the stride style. As such, the style becomes more of a feature than the drive behind it.
The production of the record leaves something to be desired. It is disappointing because the other historical connection here is that Hill's 1960s music, and the music of the forward-thinking bunch he ran with, were cultivated largely on the Blue Note label, which boasted some of the best jazz production values in the business. I am not an audiophile, but it is important that a jazz record's production doesn't interfere with my enjoyment of the music. Of course, it is all the better if an album's production is warm and gives a satisfying illusion of realism in a recording. Black Stars is a very pristine and clear recording, but not very full to my ears. The saxophones and flute are well recorded, but the drums sound flat and brittle and are awkwardly spread across the stereo spectrum. The piano sounds a little out of focus, which is a shame because it does not emphasize Moran's percussive attack. The bass lacks warmth, and sounds transparent as opposed to dark and present. It is unfortunate, because Mateen's playing is excellent but one has to strain somewhat to listen to it. The frequent clack of the hard-hit string against the fingerboard is unfortunately well represented, meaning that it's as noticeable as a snare hit at a low volume.
The sequencing of the music on Black Stars could be better. The subtle and mysterious art of album sequencing is much more advanced in rock than it is in jazz today. Better sequencing in this case could result in the omission of two tracks, and not because they're "bad", but because they don't add to the shape of the album. The most obvious of the two, "Kinda Dukish", is the second track and presents the trio too soon. Its consonant and traditional harmonies and bouncy feel are at odds with the preceding track and the album as a whole and it disrupts the listening experience, obscuring what was a powerful introduction and casting doubt on the course to come. And it is followed by another anomaly, the too slick-themed "Gangsterism on a River", which boasts an excellent tenor solo, but is out of place in light of the unity of purpose of what's to follow.
With a programmable CD player, one can subtract "Kinda Dukish" and "Gangsterism", and listen to a triumph of restless and driving jazz by a master and three future masters.