Lewis Porter-Phil Scarff Group – Three Minutes to Four [TrackList follows] – Whaling City Sound WCS 100 (distr. by Naxos), 73:19 [8/25/17] ****:

Not your typical world jazz release.

(Lewis Porter – piano; Phil Scarff – tenor, soprano and sopranino saxophones, tamboura; John Funkhouser – bass; Bertram Lehmann – drums)

The best jazz takes listeners to all points of the compass. The material on the Three Minutes to Four CD by the Lewis Porter-Phil Scarff Group certainly puts a lot into 73 minutes. The contemporary jazz incorporates or is influenced by Ghanaian music, Indian ragas, Western classical music, bird calls, and fellow jazz musicians. There’s more as well, and yet it all has a natural, organic flow. The quartet consists of pianist Porter (who heads Rutgers University’s jazz history program and has recorded with Dave Liebman, Gary Bartz and Marc Ribot), saxophonist Scarff (who has extensive experience in Indian classical music as well as jazz), bassist John Funkhouser (who is on the faculty at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and has appeared with Joe Lovano, Bobby Watson and Rudresh Mahanthappa), and drummer Bertram Lehmann (who also teaches at Berklee and has also worked with Liebman as well as Randy Brecker, Anat Cohen and others). Together these four artists shift from conventional jazz to 12-tone music to classical Indian material, but all enhanced through a jazz lens.

The wide-ranging material is split between single tunes and suites. One of the highlights in the album’s first half is the two-part “Bageshri-Bageshwari,” which includes a two-minute introduction followed by a lengthy 9:32 main section. The piece expounds on a North Indian classical raga, hence the Indian aspects heard at the tune’s beginning. But after a few minutes, the foursome break into a punchy, swinging mannerism fronted by Scarff’s higher-register soprano sax, Porter’s rhythmical comping, and the fast-paced bass and drums. The CD’s middle portion has another notable medley, the “Skies of South Africa Suite,” which opens with the brief “Bird Songs of Hermanus,” a slightly dissonant cut with an improvisation based on bird calls heard in a nature preserve in a coastal South African village. The longer segment, the 4:40 “Branches in the Trees,” has a loping quality accentuated by Scarff’s tenor sax, and is centered on a rhythmic and melodic fractal treatment of a phrase from an Indian classical raga. Instead of focusing on a fixed tonal element, the group expands and contracts the musical patterns. The result is variable, elaborate and complex, and ubiquitously forward-thinking. The CD concludes with two more medleys. The six-minute “Serially Retro Suite” consists of two compositions (“Dozens not Baker’s” and “Retro Cells”) which are divergent but oddly complementary tracks constructed on 12-tone rows. This is not standard jazz fare, but the quartet conveys a light swing feel to this knotty work. The album ends with “Raga Bhairavi,” which is often found as a closing statement in Indian classical performances. After a 90-second traditional Indian intro, the group charges through an eight-minute second part which brings jazz to the forefront. Scarff changes the raga design from a 16-beat cycle to a six-beat cycle and adds a bass line. The outcome is a grooving jazz number with an Indian/Asian underpinning. Scarff and Porter both slip in memorable solos, while drums and bass sustain an escalating beat.

Western classical music is most evident on Porter’s five-minute “Olivier,” which Porter penned in 1998 as a dedication to French composer Olivier Messiaen. Porter previously recorded this with Liebman. Porter’s theme is based instinctively (rather than formally) on Messiaen’s diminished-scale concepts. This modern jazz piece is not technically a Third Stream production, but nevertheless listeners can understand the obvious inspirations. On the other hand, jazz history seasons other cuts. Porter’s “Long Ago” is loosely built from Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s popular 1944 hit, “”Long Ago (and Far Away),” which Errol Garner, Benny Carter and scores more have done. As Porter states, “By the time I finished, I had composed something quite different, but still somehow nostalgic.” If anyone discerns a bit of saxophonist Art Pepper in this charming, effervescent tune, Porter says that’s deliberate. “Striver’s Row” is the only cover, credited to Sonny Rollins. Scarff explains the purely improvisational piece was played by Rollins as a harmonic progression of Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation.” In an interesting feat, Scarff assembled two segments from different choruses performed by Rollins, to form “Striver’s Row.” The atypical arrangement commences with lightly witty bass and drums, then sax and piano solos, and finally the melody comes to fruition as the quartet closes out the piece. If you missed this bright, West-meets-East outing when it came out in the summer of 2017, you should try to find Three Minutes to Four. The music swings mightily and has an absorbing mixture of non-conventional and traditional jazz components which provide an open-minded experience.

TrackList: 
Journey
Bageshri-Bageshwari: Part I (Introduction, Alap), Part II
Olivier
Long Ago
Rage Shree, Gajarawa Baje Hi Rahila Baje Hi Baje Hi
Skies of South Africa Suite: Bird Songs of Hermanus, Branches in the Trees
Three Minutes to Four
Striver’s Row
Serially Retro Suite: Dozens not Baker’s, Retro Cells
Raga Bhairavi: Part I (Introduction, Alap), Part II

—Doug Simpson