ONE / RIGBY: Dive Bar. Dorian Gray. Live By the Sword. Dewey. RODGERS-HART: You Are Too Beautiful. SCHULLER: Newtoon. HANCOCK: Speak Like a Child. G & I GERSHWIN: Embraceable You / Detroit–Cleveland Trio: Jason Rigby, t-sax/s-sax; Cameron Brown, bs; Gerald Cleaver, dm / Fresh Sound FSNT-505
According to the press release accompanying this album, saxist Jason Rigby worked with large groups for his first two albums, but here decided to reduce to a trio with bass and drums. Nonetheless, he has composed and arranged the music on this set in such a way that it “gives each player enough compositional material to grab on to, but not too much to stifle open-ended improvisation. Ultimately this recording is about freewheeling improvisation and the unique connection that we have formed over the past 6 years performing together as a trio.” In his favor is the fact that the three musicians here are long-time associates; bassist Cameron Brown has worked with Rigby in various bands since 2005 and drummer Gerald Cleaver first played with him in 2001. Listening to the recording without any preconceived ideas, however, the wildness of its free improvisation certainly outweighs any composed components of the music.
Indeed, my personal reaction to this album was that it reminded me very strongly of those wild, avant-garde ESP-Disks that came out with some regularity in New York during the 1960s…all those wacky, out-there albums by such musicians as Pharoah Sanders, Ornette Coleman (yes, Coleman recorded for ESP-Disk), Paul Bley, Sun Ra, etc. Interestingly, the ESP-Disk resemblance also extends to the album cover/sleeve, which uses a facsimile of an old Smith-Corona typewriter, complete with uneven type and broken or over-inked letters. Rigby’s tenor sax is all over the place on the opener, Dive Bar, which begins and continues with some of the most dynamic drumming I’ve ever heard this side of Elvin Jones. It’s a surging, powerful, hard-driving piece, taking one through a number of emotions as it wends its way along. So powerful is the playing of Rigby and Cleaver, in fact, that I didn’t even hear Brown on this track!
Although Brown has almost no presence on the first track, his bass leads the trio into the second tune, Dorian Gray, a deceptively simple lick that acts as a ground bass for the whole piece. Here, Rigby acts as much as deconstructionist as a composer, taking the thematic material apart and reassembling it in various new guises. By and large, Rigby’s playing has more body to the tone than a lot of the old avant-gardists of the ‘60s, in fact an almost classic tenor sax sound in the tradition of Dexter Gordon or Wardell Gray, and when he does squeal on the instrument it is intermittent and does not greatly corrupt his fine tone quality.
I was interested to hear how Rigby would reinterpret the classic songs on this album, particularly Richard Rodgers’ Too Beautiful for Words and George Gershwin’s Embraceable You. The former is played with great reverence for the song’s structure; it is recognizable, and Rigby’s sound is deep, rich and full. Brown also falls back here to a walking bass behind the saxist, almost traditional in his approach. Only drummer Cleaver continues to play in a looser, more modern manner, which redistributes the beats somewhat, although he, too, falls more in line with the other two as the piece continues. Much to my surprise, Brown takes a solo of his own and keeps it rather minimal, weaving his way through the changes with unusual accidentals. Rigby’s sax coda almost sounded like something late-period Coleman Hawkins might have played.
Drummer George Schuller’s Newtoon is a somewhat relaxed, rambling piece, yet again in the ESP-Disk mold. Here it almost sounds as if all three musicians are going their own separate ways, complementing each other almost by accident. The melody seems comprised of serrated fragments with “running changes” on the sax, making it an ideal piece to improvise on if not one that sticks with the listener. I found it unusual that the next track, Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child, comes across as much more conventional, almost like a jazz samba, yet the manner in which Rigby plays it makes it sound rather different from the original, particularly in the improvisational passages where, now on soprano sax, he flies around his instrument in descending chromatic circles of sound.
Another Rigby original, Live By the Sword, follows. This uses an almost Eastern-sounding melodic line in which Brown tends to follow Rigby both rhythmically and harmonically while Cleaver is out in his own little drum universe. I noticed throughout this album that Rigby has a proclivity for running changes in thirds, moving up and down the scale in this manner. Embraceable You, it turns out, is played entirely a cappella by the saxist, his performance having very little to do with the song’s original melody. It is, rather, a free-form fantasy on the Gershwin tune, only rarely—as at the 2:40 mark and a little later on—incorporating small portions of the original melody into his creation. This was, for me, the musical highlight of the album, a sparkling gem that deserves repeated listening. He ends it almost in the middle of nowhere.
The album’s closer, Dewey, is dedicated to pianist Paul Bley and saxist Dewey Redman. The notes indicate that it is part of a suite Rigby wrote several years ago, and it is not only a powerful performance but also a fascinating creation, more unified in its various sections than some of the other pieces on this disc. It also returns us to the wild mood and temperament of the opening track, except that in this case I most definitely heard Brown’s bass throughout, playing continually busy eighth notes to bind the piece together. Eventually, however, Rigby just takes off on its changes and flies into the stratosphere, pulling his talented band along with him. Brown’s solo is also a gem, skittering around the strings of his bass and creating his own piece based on the original tune. This is followed by a remarkable Cleaver solo that leads us back into Rigby’s sax playing. It’s quite a ride!
One is scheduled for release on April 28, with a “release performance” at the Jazz Gallery in New York the following evening. If you are a fan of experimental or outside jazz, this is a disc for you!
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley