Thursday, October 28, 2021

Alex Norris: Endurance of hard bop under new circumstances

Alex Norris plays the pandemic.

Never being of the opinion that old ways of doing things need to remain set in the forms of their originators, I don't take what Alex Norris and his quintet do on "Fleet from the Heat" (SteepleChase) to be a retread of the Blue Note heydays of Art Blakey and Horace Silver. What use is genuine inspiration if the only result is to do something entirely different?

The trumpeter-flugelhornist pays explicit tribute to those bandleaders and their styles in the booklet notes. Not that making his debt clear would excuse him if the music were lame. But "Fleet from the Heat" is fresh and avoids running merely in the well-worn tracks of his illustrious predecessors. 

The main proof of this accomplishment is a suite straight out of the COVID crisis that won't seem to let go of us. "The Famous Original Pandemic Suite" in the middle of "Fleet from the Heat" comprises four pieces with distinct personalities. The entire band sound nestles well within the acoustic hard-bop genre and its classic instrumentation of trumpet-tenor saxophone-piano-bass-drums.

"What Normal?" starts it off asking the question that's been on everyone's mind. It hops and skips around with nervous camaraderie among the ensemble. The shutdown mentality has a showcase in "Quarandemic." Norris mutes his horn, and the persistent piano pattern suggests how stuck we all felt in repetition throughout most of 2020. 

"Ballad for 2020" comes in third at just the right time, reflective but slightly depressed in mood. Norris's deliberate placement of notes hints at the caution we all continue to feel in making decisions about when and how often to go out, and how comfortable we feel with the various protocols, including vaccinated status. The dratted inconvenience of the pandemic is summed up in the suite's finale, "Dude, Where's My Deli?" So many favorite places closed or short-staffed! There's a kind of indignant, rebellious spirit at play here, with a groove reminiscent of that hard-bop classic, Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder."

The compatability of Norris's group is evident throughout, and special mention should be made of the other front-line member, tenor saxophonist Ari Ambrose. He has a nice tone and a good way of constructing phrases that hang together despite a fondness for interval leaps. That's well demonstrated in his solo on "Holiday Blues," which has a tidy, well-structured theme that seems typical of Norris's compositions.

The disc finale, "Grapple With a Snapple,"  salutes hard bop's splendid forebear, bop itself. It has that genre's fast, unison melodic line, including the typical bop feature of "trading fours" with the drummer (Brian Floody) near the end.

"Night Bus" hints at the norm for a lot of touring musician travel. The relaxed but forward-leaning feeling is quite appropriate. Ambrose goes to the boundary of splitting high tones in his solo, but never crosses the line, a kind of restraint that seems to suit him. He's also quite comfortable with less intensity, which shows up especially well in partnership with the leader's flugelhorn in "No Fair, It's Mine." 

The band's internal rapport and ease with the material is evident immediately in the title tune, which leads off the recording. There are strong statements from the two horns, with steady support from the rhythm section (partly due to the firmness of Paul Gill's bass). The piece has a logical, never uptight flow to the music's subliminal message of escape (in Norris's case, relocating from Florida to New York). May we all be fleet from the heat of our current stress. Music like this can help.

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