Peter Brendler, doublebass – Message in Motion – Positone

Peter Brendler, doublebass – Message in Motion – Positone PR8156, 56:39 (7/15/16) ****:

The bass leads the way.

(Peter Brendler – doublebass/ Rich Perry – tenor sax /Peter Evans – trumpet /Vinnie Sperrazza – drums /Ben Monder – guitar)

It is easy to overlook the bass in a jazz ensemble. It is the least noisy and attention-grabbing instrument. However, its importance can hardly be overstated. As always when I discover a new bassist, I listen in on my Sennheiser 600 headphones with rapt attention to the footfalls of the walking bass, which are a sure path through the music. The quarter-notes are a way of finding the complexities of the harmony. I like to think of the bass – especially in the absence of a chordal instrument– as the brains of the ensemble which thus thinks from the bottom up.  A superior bassist exemplifies Henry David Thoreau’s dictum that “walking is a kind of thinking.” As long as the bass stays on the trail, one cannot get too lost. The CD under review here “Message in Motion” offers a good example of ‘basic’ virtues. The leader of the group, Baltimore-based Peter Brendler, was unknown to me before this debut recording under his own name. He is at the helm of a quartet which is expanded to a quintet for four tracks with the addition of guitarist Ben Monder.

Brendler’s own playing, which is simply outstanding in every regard, must be sought out under the prominent blowing of his comrades. He allows himself solos on every other track. These are played with admirable attention to idea and intonation. On “Stunts and Twists” we encounter the bloom of his superb instrument without the clutter of horns; it is magnificent. A tangy upper resonance, a bottom that is not too muddy, and a life-like separation of strings. It should be added that the drumming of Vinnie Sperrazza complements the assured swing and pulse of the bassist to perfection.

The bassist supplies eight original charts to the session. To these are added a wry minor blues march by Alice Coltrane “Ptah the El Daoud”. Belied by its exotic title, this tune is the simplest sketch on the session. Track five: “Easy Way Out,” is by Elliot Smith, a ballad of serene beauty which features the aqueous tone of Ben Monder’s guitar. It is as compelling a meditation on a pop tune as Brad Mehldau’s treatment of Radiohead and “Blackbird”.

The other tunes show a deft hand. There are three bop-oriented tunes in a row with crisp ensemble playing. “Very Light and Sweet,” “Gimme the Numbers,”’ and “Didn’t Do Nothing.” The traditional division of labor prevails here, with the rhythm section playing solid supporting role to exuberant soloists. “Angelica” is charming call and response melody in which the band follows Ornette Coleman’s injunction “everybody play the melody.” The band is at its most cohesive on this memorable romp.

The strengths of this recording which I have tried to convey; superior rhythmic craft, smart compositions and ensemble arranging, are in danger at times of being overwhelmed by the front line of Rich Perry and Peter Evans. These are not players of a retiring personality, especially the trumpeter. Rich Perry is likely to be the better-known musician here. Perry can be placed among those tenor virtuosi who possess a comprehensive jazz vocabulary; there is no style of which he is not a consummate master. His method is linear development of an idea, a rigorous examination of melodic material. He belongs to the Harold Land “think before you speak” school of tenor playing.  Not that he can’t blow up a storm when necessary, as in “Ptah” and “Stop Gap”.

The trumpet player, Peter Evans, is a more eccentric artist. His trumpet is bright, his attack pungent. His method of soloing is peculiar to say the least. He favors a rapid-fire, fluttering articulation which probes musical ideas with obsessive vehemence. It makes for a sharp contrast to the linear approach of Rich Perry. I think for every two listeners who find his style just too weird, there will be a third who digs his completely original melange of theatrical effects, his high spirits, and post-post bop insouciance.

Ben Monder reappears on “Lucky in Astoria,” a tempestuous riot with heavy distortion and angry growling from both sax and guitar. This track reminded me of a Japanese friend of mine, who once declared that he only listened to music which “made you put both of your hands in the air.” But it seems oddly out of place on this record.

The final tune “Stop Gap” seems to take us out of the fog. But it is Peter Evans who has the last say. Perhaps you recall the evil dwarf Rumpelstiltskin. When his name is discovered and he loses his famous wager, he shrieks and wails and spins in a circle, drilling a hole into the earth and disappearing. It is not a bad image of the trumpeter’s playing.

“Message in Motion” is a praiseworthy outing by a most interesting group. Rich in message and exquisite in motion, it has a lot to offer and I would spring at the chance to hear this bassist in a smaller group or to hear a second offering by this very unit.

TrackList: Splayed; Angelica; Stunts and Twists; Ptah the El Daoud;  Easy Way Out; Very Light and Very Sweet; Gimme the numbers;  Didn’t Do Nothing; Lucky in Astoria;  Stop Gap;

—Fritz Balwit

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