Wellstone Conspiracy – Motives – Origin 82560, 51:05 ****:
(Brent Jensen – soprano saxophone; Bill Anschell – piano; Jeff Johnson – bass; John Bishop – drums)
What is the Wellstone Conspiracy? For some political intrigue junkies it alludes to the 2002 death of liberal Senator Paul Wellstone who perished in a small plane crash which some pundits believe was caused by an assassination scheme. For Pacific Northwest jazz fans, however, Wellstone Conspiracy is a skilled quartet which formed in 2006 to back up Idaho-based soprano saxophonist Brent Jensen. The musicians were last heard together on Jensen’s One More Mile (Origin, 2007). This time out, on Motives, the foursome have invented a new nomenclature and initiated full-group solidarity. Returning once again are Jensen and three Seattleites: pianist Bill Anschell, bassist Jeff Johnson and drummer John Bishop.
The 51-minute outing blends atmospheric with modernistic, as well as melodic and traditional with free-spirited jazz, and has sustained depth, sensitivity and nods to traditional jazz as well as contemporary styles.
Songwriting is split between Anschell (who penned three tunes), Jensen (who also wrote three) and Johnson (who composed the beauteous ballad “Portrait”). The record ends with Anschell’s arrangement of Billy Strayhorn’s sublime “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing.” The proceedings begin strongly with Jensen’s ode to drummer Ed Blackwell, “Bye Bye Blackwell,” which has an appropriately tousled rhythmic sensibility highlighted by Bishop’s multi-accented drumming, Jensen’s melodic and pulsing sax (he has an extended solo which shows off his impressive chops), Johnson’s intricate stop and start bass lines and a complex, vivid Anschell improvisation interlude.
Jensen’s warmth and gentleness is displayed on his waltz-time ballad tribute “Anne Rose,” a romantic number which includes a bouncy bass solo which exhibits Johnson’s well-regarded talent (he’s worked with Philly Joe Jones, Barney Kessel, Chet Baker, Eddie Daniels and many more) and Jensen’s capacity for combining delicacy with fiery flash. Jensen also supplies the idiosyncratic “Doop Dee Doop,” which carries a low-key playful attitude with some bebop-informed sax solos and quick-witted rhythmic interplay. The tune has finely-placed cool-jazz flourishes alongside some interesting and hotter harmonic variations.
Anschell’s contributions have a punny outlook. His “Phindango” is no fandango but should be partially familiar to jazz listeners, since it employs chord changes found in Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.” While the cut presents the pianist’s dexterity for dramatic harmonic concentration, the track also features outstanding Johnson soloing as well as Jensen’s amiable sax. The upbeat “Turbolator” gets its name from an airplane wing device used to help regulate air flow and decrease drag, but in this case the quartet moves rapidly without any assistance. This fast piece never slows. Anschell simmers on another waltz-time tune, “Stories We Hold,” which has an affectionate narrative drift and is a perfect vehicle for Jensen’s gliding soprano, Anschell’s Bill Evans-esque piano and fluctuating bass and drums.
Johnson’s poignant character portrayal, “Portrait,” is an album apex. Johnson is moving and tender with solo statements which echo Ron Carter’s classy elegance. Anschell is equally engrossing during his solo break while Jensen utilizes a subtle facility on his phrasing which conveys a natural intimacy. Motives concludes with Strayhorn’s “A Flower is a Lovesome Thing,” arranged by Anschell with graceful motifs which produce a balanced meditation enhanced by underlying rhythmic alterations.
1. Bye Bye Blackwell
3. Anne Rose
6. Stories We Hold
7. Doop Dee Doop
8. A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing
— Doug Simpson