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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ross Hammond - Humanity Suite (Prescott Records, 2014) ****

By Paul Acquaro

Bay Area guitarist Ross Hammond's Humanity Suite was written to perform at the Croker Museum in his hometown of Sacramento, California. Emancipating the Past, a show by visual artist Kara Walker, served as the backdrop, and inspiration, for the set of music. Calm on the surface, but rife with undercurrents of tension and disharmony, the musical work is at once sensitive to the exhibit's unsettling imagery and a powerful statement on its own.

Hammond's last quartet recording, Cathedrals, with Vinny Golia, Alex Cline, and Steuart Liebig, was a fantastic jazz-rock outing. However, working here with a larger band (now a sextet), the guitarist takes advantage of the expanded set of tonalities and goes for an even more textural approach to the pieces. The sextet includes Vinny Golia on woodwinds, Catherine Sikora on saxophone, Clifford Childers' on trombone, Kerry Kashiwagi on bass and Dax Compise on drums.

Hammond's brittle slightly distorted electric guitar introduces the suite, and invokes symbols of America's past by employing folk song like simplicity. The first ten minutes of the piece slowly build, each instrument tentatively entering and gently probing the edges of the tune, until a steady pulse is established and a fantastic saxophone solo follows. The piece is soon carefully deconstructed, leading to a plaintive sounding woodwind solo and some free ensemble playing.  The harmonies and counterpoint here reveal the prewritten pieces, which Hammond says he sketched out prior to the performance. The mix of spontaneity and mapped out sections gel quite well.

As evidenced in his previous recordings, Hammond gives his fellow musicians plenty of time and space to play with. He gives a lot space to the woodwinds on the first side, and when you're working with as imaginative improvisers as Golia and Sikora, it seems like a wise choice. Side two opens with the guitar and the bass clarinet playfully engaging each other. Soon, the song locks into a groove and Hammond lets his guitar growl.

Moving seamlessly from compositional sketches to free group improvisation, Humanity Suite is an exciting musical development in Hammond's discography. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next!

Humanity Suite will be available May 6 at