Jeff Denson Runs Rings Around “Concentric Circles”

Denson_Concentric_Circles_COVER

CONCENTRIC CIRCLES / DENSON: City Life on Trains; Anticipation; A Thought That Lingers; Wishing Well; Look Before You Leap; Time Waits For No One; 21st Century Blues; Once the Door Opens; Circle. ELLINGTON-MILLS: I Got it Bad (And That Ain’t Good) / Jeff Denson Quartet: Denson, bs/voc; Paul Hanson, bassoon; Dan Zemelman, pn; Alan Hall, dm. / Ridgeway Records (no number)

After hearing so much dense (but interesting) jazz of late, it was a pleasure to listen to bassist-vocalist Jeff Denson’s new release. It’s not that the compositions here are not interesting—they are—but that their somewhat simpler construction and more regular meter allows the musicians of the group to play with greater looseness and, as a result, greater joy. By and large this is modal jazz set to freely swinging rhythms, with pianist Zemelman giving the music a bit of a Vince Guaraldi feel.

Much of the music’s buoyant quality comes, ironically enough, from the bassoon playing of Paul Hanson, whose work on this set is fascinating. Hanson improvises like a saxist, which isn’t too terribly surprising; what is surprising is the lovely tone he coaxes out of his instrument, rich and full, far from the bullfrog croaks of many a classical bassoonist. Maybe they should try swinging more often!

There are just enough irregularities in the tune construction on this set—note, for instance, the coruscating and slightly asymmetrical theme of Anticipation—that keeps the listener attentive. There are also slight irregularities in the Latin-tinged A Thought That Lingers, which Hanson has a great deal of fun with, tooting his bassoon through eighth-note passages that limn the melody while exploring the range of his instrument. Zemelman, an excellent pianist, takes over soft comping following this solo to support the leader’s arco solo, fairly high up in his range. The leader’s surprisingly high-voiced, vibratoless vocal on Wishing Well presents a new jazz ballad for others to use as they wish; once again, Hanson plays a stellar solo, but here so, too, does Denson on bass.

At the album’s midpoint, Look Before You Leap is a superb and more complex piece, utilizing a 6/8 motor rhythm played by Zemelman as a foil to the opening 4. Indeed, even when you know that the music is in 4, as in Zemelman’s excellent solo, the bass and drums are playing almost constant backbeats which throw you off track a bit, and the rhythm becomes even a bit more complex behind Hanson’s surprisingly bluesy solo. Eventually Zemelman takes to playing his 6/8 behind Hanson’s 4, then the beat returns to normal for a quick finish.

Time Waits for No One is another ballad, this one instrumental, which combines a bit of Orientalism and a Latin-type beat. Here, although Hanson is very good, it is the leader’s bowed solo is the centerpiece, followed by a lovely passage in which the piano plays single notes against the bassoon, bass and drums. 21st Century Blues, on the other hand, is a quasi-ragtime piece played over subtly changing chords and chord positions. The bassist keeps a steady 4, but the drummer does not, spreading his impish humor behind a swinging Zemelman solo with bassoon obbligato. When Denson comes in for his plucked solo the drummer behaves himself and stays with the beat, and stays there for Hanson as well. A fun piece!

With Once the Door Opens, we are in an entirely different world from the rest of the album. This is a slow, mysterious, open piece which opens with Hanson’s bassoon over cymbals before Denson’s bass comes in to pick up the tempo but keeps the strange mood, which continues through his scat vocal, in the midst of which we suddenly move into a straight 4 and then back out of it again. Tempo, and indeed pulse, are suspended for the opening of the piano solo, which then (curiously) picks up a bit in beat as the recording suddenly sounds like Chick Corea’s old Return to Forever band. This, however, also dissipates as the bassoon re-enters, as does Denson on bass and vocal to move things towards the finish…but not before the tempo and the tension increases, making the finale of this piece entirely different from its beginning.

Circle is a more traditional (albeit modal) swinger, and the band really cooks here. Denson, in particular, is really inventive in his solo, almost stealing the show. As a finale, we turn to the world of Duke Ellington and I Got it Bad, one of Ivie Anderson’s (and Johnny Hodges’) star vehicles with the band. Not too surprisingly, Denson re-works the piece, making it an a cappella bowed solo playing very high up in the bass’s range, with occasional plucked notes and chords as well as blues smears.

Concentric Circles is part fun and part challenge, a fine album by any standard.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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