Compact discs aren’t usually considered a delicate medium, but if it’s possible to wear a CD out, I made a valiant effort with Deluxe. The 2010 offering from bassist Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth was a rare and heady mix of complex rhythms and near-perfect horn harmonies, an album that maintained an avant-garde pedigree but also unabashedly embraced hooks—those infectious bits of musical pleasure that normally send hardcore free jazzers screaming for the hills.
It’s exciting and relieving then that “Nine South,” the first track on Epicenter, opens with a monstrous earworm, an ostinato Wurlitzer hook that leaves a searing imprint on the brain. As Craig Taborn races around the keys, Lightcap and the dual-tenor frontline—Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby—enter with the same big, emotional melodic lines we grew to love on Deluxe. It’s as arresting as anything from that earlier album, and sets Epicenter up as more of the same. In general, this is great news.
Lightcap is a master of counterpoint, and his compositions send beautiful, interwoven harmonies over knotted, West African rhythms. The group always sounds expansive, if a bit melancholic at times. Seven of the eight tracks on Epicenter comprise a suite entitled “Lost and Found: New York.” Lightcap wrote, developed, and recorded the tracks with the help of the Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works grant, awarded in 2011 on the heels of Deluxe’s success. Each piece is inspired by some facet of New York City, though the tunes are unmistakably Lightcap’s and would fit comfortably with any of the band’s previous work. The thematic comparisons are easy enough: Bigmouth’s mix of disparate influences as a stand in for the melting pot culture of NYC, Lightcap’s deft usage of variously paced, parallel lines of motion calling to mind the many speeds of a city that is nevertheless always moving forward.
Many of the songs reflect pop music through more than just catchy melodies, and this is where Epicenter may leave some adventurous listeners wanting. Tracks like the gently floating “Arthur Avenue” or the pounding, under-three-minute “Down East” leave little room for any kind of improvisation, instead highlighting Lightcap’s ear for sweet harmony (the former) or intricate rhythm (the latter). “White Horse” is an another oddity, a short, thematic piece with multiple overdubs, including acoustic guitar and organ contributions from Lightcap. It’s a lovely bit of music, but is entirely a creature of the studio, bereft of the living, breathing feeling of a tight jazz ensemble. In the end, however, Epicenter isn’t really about the excitement of the unknown or chasing an improvisational high—it’s about five talented musicians rallying behind Lightcap’s assured compositional voice.
Epicenter is brilliantly summed-up with a cover of Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting intersection of New York City, popular music, and the avant-garde. It builds to a satisfying crescendo that allows the band to finally cut loose, while losing none of the jangly, gangly swagger of the original. Five years is a long time to wait for a follow-up. Epicenter further sands down some of the band’s coarser, more venturesome edges, but it’s a welcome return that I’ll know I’ll be spinning often in the months to come.