I's it possible for a jazz quintet to craft music that's melodically intriguing, harmonically alluring and rhythmically numbing?
Yes, indeed, judging by Thursday night's performance from Shawn Maxwell's New Tomorrow, the latest ensemble fronted by a Chicago saxophonist-flutist who already has proved that he knows how to write compellingly idiosyncratic scores.
When he led Shawn Maxwell's Alliance at the Jazz Showcase two years ago, he offered listeners a welcome respite from the rigid stylistic boundaries that hem in many ensembles. The well-named Alliance presented compositions that refreshingly fused elements of jazz, classical, pop and a hint of funk, sometimes shifting from one to the next within the span of a couple of measures. Plus how often do you encounter music penned for two saxophones, two French horns, two stand-up basses, wordless vocals, guitar, drums and percussion?
Maxwell's New Tomorrow showed him pursuing a different direction. In every way, New Tomorrow — which Maxwell will be taking into the recording studio next week — represented a tighter, leaner sound and concept. Even with just five musicians, however, the band conjured a range of color and texture, with several of the musicians doubling up on instruments.
Once again, Maxwell affirmed that he knows how to wield a pen, his intricately detailed scores bristling with surprises. Among them: highflying duo passages for Maxwell's saxophone/flute and Victor Garcia's trumpet; serpentine ostinatos for Matt Nelson's piano and electronic keyboard; ample room for Junius Paul to stretch out on acoustic and electric bass (especially the latter).
Better still New Tomorrow featured compositions built on unexpected chord progressions, stop-start rhythms and other quirky devices that continually caught listeners off guard. This was the handiwork of a composer not content to settle into predictable musical.
Why Maxwell would want to cast these terrific original ideas against the nearly relentless, sledgehammer backbeats of drummer Phil Beale stands as something of a mystery. Nearly every composition Maxwell's New Tomorrow played featured leaden, earthbound, hammered downbeats of a sort you'd expect to encounter in a dance club where hundreds of revelers want to move to the same thumping, pounding, pulsing rhythm.
Other threads of Maxwell's scores, however, aspired to something more sophisticated and engaging, which caused a push-pull tug-of-war between drummer Beale and everyone else. If the idea was to make Maxwell's high-toned writing more palatable to an audience that needed easily an digestible musical element, the effort was counterproductive. For as much as one tried to savor the melodic lines that Maxwell and Garcia were producing or the chordal structures that pianist Nelson and bassist Paul were devising, there was no escaping those overwrought, rhythmically inflexible blows on drums.
That said, other elements of Maxwell's new compositions were worth admiring, especially in the way he and several of his colleagues handled them. The ever-shifting rhythmic syntax Maxwell and trumpeter Garcia articulated in "Embraceable Excuses" piqued interest, while Garcia's irrepressibly inventive, airborne solos ennobled the entire venture. Paul's low-note flurries on electric bass and Nelson's intensely chromatic keyboard riffs kept matters interesting in "Work in Progress." And the virtuoso duet breaks for Maxwell and Garcia in "Progressive Regression" were inspiring to hear.
Is it not possible to tone down and loosen up the pummeling of the drum set?
01. Embraceable Excuses
02. Work In Progress
03. Responsibility Run
04. Inside Back
05. Whole Hearted Half The Time
06. Unexpected Heel Turn
07. Progressive Regression
08. Saturday Morning Dance
09. Carbird Seat
10. Three Kinds Of Heat
11. Throw Away Tune #2
12. Eustachian Tube Dysfunction
13. Hitting Streak
14. Bye For Now.
Shawn Maxwell: alto sax, flute
Victor Garcia: trumpet (1, 4, 5, 10)
Chad McCullough: trumpet (2, 3, 6, 8 13, 14)
Corey Wilkes: trumpet (11)
Junius Paul: acoustic and electric bass
Matt Nelson: piano, rhodes, Wurlitzer
Phil Beale: drums