Simply seeing the names of the musicians in this band made me do a double-take. Drummer Tomas Fujiwara, bassist Jason Roebke, guitarist Mary Halvorson are all in cellist Tomeka Reid's quartet?!? The various styles of these players coming together into one NYC-meets-Chicago supergroup works so well on paper it promises to be an absolute dream. But you know how supergroups turn out... Well screw your cynicism – and mine – because the debut recording from the Tomeka Reid Quartet is an absolute gem. Seriously, I have to pull back a little when writing about it or I'll be ending every other sentence with five exclamation points. Nobody wants to read that shit.
So what's so great about it? I'm going to list several reasons & try to contain myself.
- Like the music of Thelonious Monk, this music brings pure unadulterated joy into the world and makes the drudgery and gray awfulness of Midwestern life bearable. Thirty seconds into Dolphy's “17 West,” - the only non-Reid penned tune here - Reid and Halvorson are dueling, teasing, prodding.. “This is what you came to hear, right?” The clash is frenetic and joyously furious, setting the tone for everything to come. Even sullen, somber tracks like “Super Nova” sound like happy songs to me. I'm not entirely sure why, but I think it's got something to do with an acceptance of all of life, given the ideal balance of every nuance and note. Reid's vision is broad and all-encompassing. Every new sound is intuitively balanced by the introduction of its polar opposite. It is idealistic and inclusive. Who wouldn't want to inhabit this world?
- Mary Halvorson is the perfect foil for Reid; and never once does she steal the show. Mary's a rock star if jazz ever had one – ironically because she's the consummate team player. When she plays underneath Tomeka's gorgeous autumnal melody on “Etiole,” she combines the harmonic beauty of Jim Hall with precise rhythmic drops Keith Richards would envy. Subtle, original, and absolutely on point. Halvorson duels with Reid often, but it's playful and loose and elliptical. Sometimes, as on “Woodlawn,” the solos don't sound predetermined at all. They're simply part of a normal spontaneous conversation where two people start interrupting each other excitedly, then pull back and listen – or wait to talk, whichever option is more urgent at any particular time. Endlessly fascinating.
- Reid's compositions get stuck in your head – in the best way. The melodies are durable and smart. The sounds and influences are diverse as well, running from French cafe jazz to blues to a couple of pieces that sound a little like the otherworldly soundtracks Popol Vuh used to make for Herzog films. (Reid is no stranger to film music. She wrote and recorded a soundtrack to the 2014 documentary “Harry Who & The Chicago Imagists”.)
- Roebke and Fujiwara are a rock solid rhythm section who are also sensitive players. It's the balance thing again. It's the key to everything – and it starts here. If these two guys couldn't walk that line, none of this would work. They're kind of the unsung heroes of this disc, but that just proves how well they perform their jobs. Very rarely do these guys drop metered time, but when they do it's still perfectly balanced between pulse-time and impulse-time, and between themselves and the other two players.
This was my pick for Album of the Year in 2015. It is the best debut album from a jazz quartet I've heard in a long, long time. It is seriously making winter bearable. Highest recommendation.