Palmetto Records PM 2100

Palmetto Records PM 2101

Affiliated neither with the backwards-gazing Young Lions nor with the try- anything experimenters, New York’s Jazz Composers Collective (JCC) gathers together a rotating cast of musicians and bands to perform and write distinctive contemporary pieces to advance jazz without imitating or rupturing its historic fabric.

Bassist Ben Allison and pianist Frank Kimbrough — who co-founded the JCC in 1992 and remain two of its composers-in-residence — refine that concept on these CDs. Problem is, sometimes when you stay in the middle of the road — even a musical one — you’re apt to be run over from different directions.

Although more concise, Allison’s disc fares better, with the greater number of colors available with Medicine Wheel, which besides he and the pianist consists of trombonist Clark Gayton, reedists Michael Blake and Ted Nash, plus the refined drumming of Michael Sarin.

Sarin, who has done similar quietly spectacular work for pianist Myra Melford among others, gives some of Allison’s compositions the polyrhythmic oomph they lack. Kimbrough, who takes the piano chair in the JCC’s Herbie Nichols Project, also has a first-rate drummer on board for his trio set. Matt Wilson has backed veterans like bassist Mario Pavone and is certainly proactive on LULLABLUEBYE. There are times, in fact, that it seems like a duo session, with Allison barely present.

This is particularly obvious on “Ode”, Kimbrough’s moderato-paced tribute to pianist Andrew Hill. Accentuating different chordal patterns with his bass drum accents and cymbal resonation, Wilson breaks up the time making the pianist’s playing seem excessively formal.

Percussion inventiveness is on display on John Barry’s “You Only Live Twice” and “Whirl”. The former is an inoffensive, foot-tapping run-through of the James Bond film theme. The later finds Wilson moving from paradiddles and nerve beats to New Thing-style door knocking and rim shots. Coupled with harder tremolos from Kimbrough, it surrounds one of the few extended bass solos on the CD, with Allison ranging his way up to the pegs and down to the bridge. Thematic resolution replicates the beginning with a little more freedom.

Things pick up a bit with “Kid Stuff” and “Ben’s Tune”. “Stuff” finds Wilson’s tick-tocking cymbal raps, rebounds and ratamacues accompanying a bit of Baroque-like invention on Kimbrough’s part, albeit a section with pitchsliding and pointillism. Here though, the repeated note clusters bring early Chick Corea to mind. The other tune is unfussy, unfocussed and unpretentious and sounds like fun to play. It features arpeggio rolls and metronomic time keeping from the pianist, with light voicing that sometimes makes it seem that he’s about to launch into “Ferry Cross The Mersey”. Despite its title as well, Allison’s solo is unspectacularly low-key.

The bassman is more assertive on his own CD, but at least that doesn’t translate into a string of bass solos. Instead he integrates within the more aggressive sounds of the horns and drummer Sarin.

You can see the freedom he gains when you compare tuns such as “R&B Fantasy” and “Green Al”. The first isn’t related to the common definition of R&B, ending up as more like a classically styled fantasia with contrapuntal parts for nearly everyone. Sarin’s press rolls and brush-driven cymbal pressure holds the beat, that’s prevented from becoming too overpowering by modulated, moderated and meshed saxophone and piano lines. Improvising like a more modern, lilting Stan Getz, Blake, on tenor, puts not a note out of place until the very end when he introduces some mannerly squeals and flutter tonguing. Kimbrough comps politely behind him until the other horns enter and take out the piece, with the pianist reprising the rondo-like beginning.

Perhaps the title of “Green Al” is supposed to in a backwards way suggest the Memphis-based gospel-soul singer of the same name in reverse, and it certainly has a slinky, bass-driven call-and-response beat. Sarin on hand-beaten snares and with cymbals scratches would never be confused with the MGs’ Al Jackson, however. And while Blake brings some impressive double tonguing and slurred upper partials to his funk-tinged tenor solo, the unsweaty way he approaches it distinguish him from the Memphis horns.

Sarin’s skills are again showcased on the nearly eight-minute title tune. Manipulating his percussion set so at various times it appears as if he’s playing djembe hand drums, congas and unattached cymbals, he meets slide pecks from Gayton and stratospheric runs from Nash on tenor. Far more than on his own CD, Kimbrough asserts himself, creating high frequency boogie licks as well as squeezing a handful of keys into a tremolo countermelody. By the end, the horn fills have turned to a constant vamp.

After Sarin, it’s Blake who emerges as the most consistent soloist, with a tone that ranges from wide and fruity to delineated and free. His Asiatic and Latinesque “Mauritania” provides a showcase from Nash’s crisp flute tones and growling plunger work from Gayton.

Everyone’s playing appears to need firming up however on “Erato”, a transcription of a 1960s’ tune by pianist Hill, who was also celebrated with “Ode” on Kimbrough’s CD. Here the floating romantic line becomes too smooth under the double counterpoint of Nash’s breathy tenor and a stolid bass line. The placid piano chords don’t help either.

Both Allison and Kimbrough, plus their JCC associates, are well on their way to establish unique identities. But on the evidence of these CDs, tougher-minded improvising and arrangements must be added to more advanced compositional and conceptional facilities for this to occur.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listings: Lullabluebye: 1. Lullabluebye 2. Centering 3. Kid Stuff 4. Ode 5. Whirl 6. Ghost Dance 7. You Only Live Twice 8. FuBu 9. Ben’s Tune 10. Eventualities

Personnel: Lullabluebye: Frank Kimbrough (piano); Ben Allison (bass); Matt Wilson (drums)

Track Listing: Buzz: 1. Respiration 2. Buzz 3. Green Al 4. Mauritania 5. Erato 6. R&B Fantasy 7. Across The Universe

Personnel: Buzz: Clark Gayton (trombone and bass trombone); Michael Blake (soprano and tenor saxophones); Ted Nash (flute and tenor saxophone); Frank Kimbrough (piano, prepared piano, Wurlitzer piano); Ben Allison (bass); Michael Sarin (drums)