16 September 2008

Under the Radar: New Directions

New Directions
New Directions

The early 1960s were a veritable golden age for Blue Note records. The independent label churned out album after album characterized by the tried-and-true "Blue Note sound," many of which sold well in urban black neighborhoods. Allowing for exploration that streched the boundaries of postwar bebop, undergirded by a heavy dose of the blues, Blue Note created a sound characterized by the stars of hard bop it frequently recorded: Art Blakey, Joe Henderson, Lee Morgan, and others. It is not surprising, then, that just before 2000, the record label sought to revisit its backcatalogue in a way that revitalized the tunes for the next century of jazz.

Blue Note entrusted the task to Greg Osby, a veteran of the label who then selected some of the label's up-and-coming talents to fill out the group, including pianist Jason Moran and vibraphonist Stefon Harris. The album is full of classics from the Blue Note catalogue, like "The Sidewinder" and "Recorda Me," reharmonized and reworked to sound fresh without losing the adventurous and organic spirit of the originals. Many of the members of this sextet have worked with Osby before. Moran was Osby's regular pianist at the time, while Harris, Shim, and Mateen had played on a number of Osby's albums. This group makeup resembles Blue Note's style of assembling recording ensembles during the early 1960s, in which the label would gather sidemen from Blue Note's stable of musicians who was familiar with the leader for that particular day's sessions, underscoring the familial aspect of Blue Note records at the time.

The Lee Morgan classic "The Sidewinder" epitomizes the feel of the album. After Osby riffs on the familiar lead-in to the melody, the full ensemble plays a reworked melody. The boogaloo rhythm of the original is replaced by a more jagged, on-top-of-the-beat feel. The melody is played with a sense of time that is both freer and more spontaneous, while staying in lock-step with the rhythm section. Osby solos first, giving an adventurous take on the tune's blues-based harmony. Harris follows with a chorus, as does Shim. Both solos have the feeling of an overworked variation on the melody, and offer little surprise. Moran, however, concludes with a gem of a solo, shifting between amelodic clusters of chords and angular runs with his right hand. Moran's solo best achieves the goal of presenting familiar tunes in an updated context. The group closes with a restatement of the melody, with Harris hanging ominous long tones over the punctuated eighth notes of Osby and Shim.

Though "The Sidewinder" is a mixed bag, Jason Moran's arrangement of the Wayne Shorter tune "Tom Thumb" is a highlight. Selecting a Wayne Shorter tune is a brave move, considering how inimitable his writing style had become by the time he wrote the tune. Moran wisely tries not to do too much with the arrangement, adding a bossa nova beat in the piano and giving the tune a more relaxed rhythmic feel. This allows Shorter's harmonies to sound new without actually changing them. Moran begins the solo sections with a well-conceived solo that shows why he is perhaps the most exciting young pianist in jazz today. Shim follows with a solo that sounds like in the beginning like vintage Joe Henderson, and it sounds surprisingly enjoyable. After a quick restatement of the melody, the tune is finished in just over five minutes.
This highlights one of the shortcomings of the disc. Because Osby wanted to fit in twelve tunes and five sidemen, we are deprived of the chance of hearing the band stretch out. Most of the classic Blue Note sessions had the feel of a blowing session; tracks stretched on for eight-plus minutes at a time, and soloists could get in three or four choruses per tune. Because of the packed program, I am left wanting more after listening to this album, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but not optimal.

Sadly, the overlords at Blue Note have let New Directions go out of print (you can buy a used copy here). Though the album will not become a classic with age, it is still worth buying, if only to hear some of today's young up-and-comers like Harris and Moran while they were still paying their dues (Harris and Moran's duet on "Beatrice" is especially enjoyable). Grab a copy if you can, you won't be disappointed.

Personnel: Greg Osby, alto saxophone; Mark Shim, tenor saxophone; Stefon Harris, vibes; Jason Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums
Track Listing: Theme from Blow Up, The Sidewinder, Ping Pong, Beatrice, No Room for Squares, Song for My Father, Tom Thumb, Commentary on Electrical Switches, Big Bertha, Recorda Me, Song of the Whispering Banshee, False Start, 20 Questions

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