David Bixler – The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head – Zoho ZM 201206, 65:44 ****:
(David Bixler – alto saxophone, producer; John Hart – guitar; Scott Wendholt – trumpet; Ugonna Okegwo – bass; Andy Watson – drums)
Saxophonist David Bixler discards expectations on his fifth and newest venture, The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head. Most jazz fans probably know Bixler from his many years in pianist Arturo O’Farrill’s ensemble, the Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra, where Bixler has worked in primarily Latin jazz structures: the two also collaborated on a jazz/Celtic crossover effort, The Auction Project (Zoho, 2010). During this hour-long, ten-track outing Bixler and his quintet shift from hard bop to funky connotations; and from energetic swing tones to midnight balladry; and only occasionally dip into Latin grooves.
Bixler uses the same lineup he had on his previous quintet release, Call It a Good Deal (2006, Zoho): guitarist John Hart, trumpeter Scott Wendholt (referred to in the credits as Wendholdt), bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Andy Watson. Like that record, Bixler wrote all of the material here, continuing his compositional forte which is both harmonically stimulating and melodically catchy. Two tracks (“Goat Check” and “The Darkness Is My Closest Friend”) will be familiar to anyone who heard Arturo O’Farrill’s Risa Negra (2009, Zoho), since Bixler supplied those two tunes to that project. O’Farrill gave Bixler’s “Goat Check” a Latin touch, but here Bixler and his band members emphasize a guitar/horns canopy with a rock music undercurrent: this is a confident cut which swings with attitude and has acute contributions from Wendholt, Bixler and in particular Hart, who shows off his modern mannerism. The shadowy “The Darkness Is My Closest Friend” retains the ghostly gait which O’Farrill also focused on: there is a chamber music subtext which provides an ethereal effect which rides beneath both the slowly systematic harmonic progression and the brass and guitar solos.
The title track is an open-minded swinger which has a constantly adjusted rhythmic tone which proceeds between Latin jazz and bebop: the arrangement as well as the solos twist and turn without ever losing the accuracy of the melodic riff. Bixler’s alto solo is searing and is complemented by Wendholt’s lively spontaneity; Hart goes from improvised bullet statements (basically he lobs guitar between the lines), incisive soloing and rhythm accompaniment. The baseball-inspired, bop-inclined “Vida Blue” matches that famed pitcher’s powerful pitching prowess: this is a piece which fluctuates from a blistering context that is highlighted by high-flying sax and trumpet to a cooler, balanced bearing fronted by Okegwo’s woody bass. Another up-tempo standout is “Thinking Cap,” which features an unpredictable arrangement where individual instruments spin out interesting improvisations. While Wendholt’s trumpet follows a predominantly traditional route, Bixler and Hart take slightly different approaches, where space is important and angularity is accentuated. Space is more crucial during the contemplative “Arise,” which unfurls in a somewhat Mingus-like fashion: there is a dappled demeanor, methodical but mysterious. Throughout The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head, there is intriguing communication between guitar, sax and trumpet, which is heightened by Bixler’s sympathetic and singular compositions and arrangements, and this makes Bixler’s album one of those undertakings where nuances and details are often noticed during the second or third listening.
TrackList: Perfected Surfaces; Vanishing Point; Vida Blue; Three Dog Years; The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head; Arise; Thinking Cap; The Darkness Is My Closest Friend; Goat Check.
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