By Paul Acquaro
A work that features bass clarinet, and especially the contrabass clarinet, will usually rise to the top of the pile for me, and Chicagoan Jason Stein's work does not disappoint. Invoking the spirit of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy at times, Stein's latest collection is an excellent mix of original compositions and choice selections from some past masters.
The album kicks off with the Warne Marsh tune, 'Background Music'. Stein, who is is joined on the recording by tenor saxophonist and contrabass clarinetist Keefe Jackson, delivers a roliicking version of the tune, rendering the title ironic. With unison lines and hard charging improvisation, this uptempo song is a harbinger of the music to come.
The set of somewhat obscure songs by Thelonious Monk, and a selection each from Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz, are treated with the right mix of respect and irreverence. Konitz's uptempo "Palo Alto", from 1950, begins here with some free blowing. Fluttering runs up and down the scales are punctuated by pops, squawks and squeaks but the woodwinds bring it together neatly as they dive into the song's head. The playing is fast and precise on Tristano's 'Lennie Bird'. Quick unison runs evoke bygone sounds of jazz, but also make it more relevant to today, bringing to it an updated tone and tempo. The mix of Stein's bass clarinet and Keefe's sax makes for a signature sound, and the support of the rhythm section, bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly, creates a perfect foundation.
The song selection, composition and musicianship seems to acknowledges the roots of free jazz with imagination and spunk, but on the whole, the record is a forward looking statement. The fast fingerings and phrasings on the aforementioned 'Background Music' demonstrates a mastery of the idiom while the writing and playing on songs like Stein's own 'Laced Case' suggests a forward moving trajectory.
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Listen to "Work" featuring the sonorous sounds of the contrabass clarinet: