Monday, November 2, 2020

'Present Company' should not be excepted if you seek a new pianoless jazz quartet

Peter Hess with his other instrument: bass clarinet

 Jazz musicians who play non-keyboard instruments probably don't have anything against pianists, but now and then they form bands that don't include them and achieve either enduring or occasional good results.

A new entry in that niche field is the Peter Hess Quartet in "Present Company" (Diskonife Records). The disc comprises seven originals (by Hess, with a couple of collaborations thrown in) that make the most of the tenor saxophone, trombone, bass, and drums makeup of the band.

The arrangements are lustrous individually, with clever distribution of material among the four musicians. The unaccompanied bass intro to "The Net Menders" yields to a soft-spoken, hymn-like theme for the horns.

 Subsequently, we have some bowed bass from Adam Hopkins as commentary on what he has said before; then the horns (Hess, tenor sax, and Brian Drye, trombone) get wilder. I don't know if there's a biblical subtext here, but there came to mind the biblical scene as Jesus recruits his disciples from men about to cast nets into the Sea of Galilee, promising "I will make you fishers of men." The mission's promise of both solace and turmoil to come is reflected in the music.

I may be reading too much into this; by the same token, I might be reading too little into "Engines," which despite its title is the only track on "Present Company"  that spends too much time ruminating. What are these engines up to?  There is no groove to catch here, it seems, though drummer Tomas Fujiwara is a reliably steadying influence. That seems only proper for an excess of rumination. The track chugs along without generating a great deal of interest beyond the obvious compatibility of the players with one another.

Otherwise, the vibe is inviting throughout, and the themes are presented across a spectrum of the group's four primary colors. As perhaps with "Engines,"  ironic humor may well be the deliberate message of "When to Move," the piece that closes the disc. At the start, the horns are deliberately shaky, as if to mimic the hesitancy behind many real-life decisions of "when to move." The music gains assertiveness, establishes a reliable pulse, and heads toward a confident conclusion.

This is a set worthy of its parade of predecessors, from the Gerry Mulligan-Chet Baker archetype on down through various modernist bands that make complete statements without the piano's inevitable tendency to dominate.

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