Jazz with significant subtext.

David Ake – Humanities [TrackList follows] – Posi-Tone PR8180, 60:29 [3/16/18] ****:

(David Ake – piano; Ralph Alessi – trumpet; Ben Monder – guitar; Drew Gress – bass; Mark Ferber – drums)

Humanities are academic disciplines which study aspects of human society and culture. The humanities include ancient and modern languages, literature, philosophy, geography, history, religion, art and musicology. It’s no accident pianist David Ake titled his latest effort Humanities. The 12 tracks (11 originals by Ake and one cover) generate an instrumental landscape which focuses on the context of what it means to be human (including Ake’s personal struggles) as well as the current tragedy and travesty of America’s political and social situation. Humanities also centers on the joy and hopefulness which people can feel or display via mutual trust, respect and openness. This type of philosophical posture fits Ake well as composer, musician and scholar (he is Professor and Chair of the Dept. of Musicology at the Univ. of Miami’s Frost School of Music).

David Ake organized quite a quintet for his project. The band comprises trumpeter Ralph Alessi (who has worked with Uri Caine and Jason Moran and released albums on ECM); guitarist Ben Monder (see Theo Bleckmann, Lee Konitz, Kenny Wheeler and many more); bassist Drew Gress (who has previously collaborated with Monder and Alessi; and played with Caine, Dave Douglas and others); and drummer Mark Ferber (credits include Konitz, Fred Hersch and Alessi). While some group members have performed together, this fivesome got together only one prior time, a quick run through these tunes the day before the six-hour session.

The opening title cut and the second piece, “Hoofer,” encompass some of the set’s nicest and nuanced interaction. During the title track Alessi offers an emotional expression which in turn is followed by Ake’s aligned piano lines, while Ferber and Gress deliver nimble percussive elements. “Hoofer” has a slight quirkiness which showcases Ake’s ability to pen lightly off-kilter arrangements. During “Hoofer” Ake provides poignant, cycling chords and the rest of the group maintains a spirited characteristic and passion. Alessi’s solo is the highlight, which is accentuated by Ake’s terse chords and Ferber’s single sticks and feathery drum rolls. Along with the title track, there are others—“Groundwork,” “Resource Center” “Rabble Rouser” and “Walter Cronkite”—which emphasize the overall theme. The lengthy “Groundwork” is Monder’s showpiece. He presents a stimulating, nearly dissonant tone matched by the others, particularly Ferber’s animated rhythm and Alessi’s trumpet. “Groundwork” has many meanings but here it probably refers to how those in the humanities create root moments for critical thinking to push students to become analytical and diagnostic. As the composition implies, “Rabble Rouser” is inciteful, awakening and harkens toward jazz-rock via Ferber’s rolling percussion and drums, and Monder’s distortion-tinged electric guitar. “Resource Center” (named after a place where students can get specific instruction or academic assistance) is the opposite of “Groundwork.” Here, the quintet lays a foundation of gradation and mid-tempo consideration. The album-ending “Walter Cronkite” is a lithe musical sketch and tribute to the famed broadcast journalist who was deemed one of the most trusted figures in the United States. Significantly, Ake incorporates a clip of the newsman’s voice into the arrangement, where Cronkite says, “Perhaps the ultimate lesson is that in a democracy, we the people are responsible for the actions of our leaders.”

Other notable tunes are also worth mentioning. On the stinging “The North,” Gress and Ake mesh into concentrated and cadenced accents while Alessi supplies supple and strengthened improvising. Monder also contributes fiery guitar excursions. Despite some illustrious solos, “The North” is a good example of how this quintet is a unit, not performers who try too hard to demonstrate specialized expertise. The lone cover is a marvelous version of the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple,” where Monder recalls Bill Frisell’s atmospheric ambiance and Alessi uses a muted trumpet. The group magically evokes Robert Hunter’s ephemeral lyrics, “Ripple in still water, when there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow.” David Ake’s Humanities can be enjoyed without a thematic context—the jazz is superb and superbly played—but understanding and being cognizant of the larger picture adds so much more.

TrackList:
Humanities
Hoofer
Groundwork
Ripple
You May Have Already Won
Drinking Song
The North
Stream
Resource Center
Narration
Rabble Rouser
Walter Cronkite

—Doug Simpson