Dan Bruce, guitars
Russ Johnson, trumpet
Chris Madsen, sax
Rob Clearfield, piano and Fender Rhodes
Clark Sommers, bass
Jon Deitemyer, drums
Record Label: www.earsandeyesrecords.com
The proliferation of postmodern jazz guitarists—including Kurt Rosenwinkel, Matt Stevens, Mike Moreno, Mary Halverson, Julian Lage, Liberty Ellman, Lage Lund, among others—has been supplanted by lesser-known but still dynamic performers and composers such as the Chicago-area-developed Dan Bruce, whose new album with his group :beta collective will receive an official concert welcome at Constellation on October 26.
Bruce, who has crafted a strong reputation based on his nuanced support for many well-known jazz artists, has deftly progressed into a fine composer and leader of a quintet, a couple of trios, and, now, this “collective” that features some of the thick cream of the rising Chicago crop. The new album, Earthshine, sounds like the next step in a rising career.
It doesn’t hurt that Bruce has, at his side, the wondrous bassist Clark Sommers, who is on a hot streak of his own, having released his own album this summer and served as a key side musician for projects led by Dana Hall, Geof Bradfield, and Kurt Elling. Sommers’ contribution to this album is not only notable but also cements this great musician as, perhaps, the Charlie Haden of a new generation.
Hearing Bruce is like experiencing a crucial generational bridge. Moments of Jim Hall/Joe Pass-like clarity turn into tone poems that evoke imagery and feeling, as in the lengthy title cut, which begins with a bucolic but spritely prelude that may represent the beginning of a new day, leading to a slightly dissonant, somber chamber section featuring the versatile Russ Johnson on trumpet and Chris Madsen on sax, with modernist underpinning provided by Rob Clearfield’s Fender Rhodes, Bruce’s preferred keyboard. As for Bruce, his playing here conjures memories of Hall and early-King Crimson Robert Fripp.
In the middle of it all is Sommers, whose wisdom shines. He never steps on anybody’s expression (suggesting the strength of Bruce’s arrangements), yet he finds holes to fill and generates a backbone (along with rising star Jon Deitemyer on drums) that holds up everything. Listen to his convivial, contrapuntal comping on the leader’s trio composition “Reprieve:Reprise” to understand how important he is to expressive artists like Bruce.
While talent clearly matters, maintaining jazz freshness centers on new composition. Lately, people like Vijay Iyer have broached ways to incorporate improvisation more seamlessly—sometimes inscrutably—into their work. Bruce’s music mirrors this development, another reason why Sommers’ presence is important.
On one such example, “Ice (No. 2),” a modal expression inspired by a trip to the Art Institute involving Bruce, Johnson, and Clearfield has, in its background, Sommers’ dancing notes that serve as a precursor to a spirited collection of solos. On this, as well as the one non-Bruce composition “Major_ Chord,” the group hearkens back to Dave Holland’s quintet work that featured the late Kenny Wheeler, especially when Deitemyer drives the band forward. In this case, Johnson, the NYC native who also contributed to the aforementioned ensembles, provides a shimmering counterpart to Bruce’s tightly-rendered melody before the tune dramatically ventures into a two-part abstraction involving Johnson and Madsen. The pensive moment ultimately gives in to a growing, vibrant cacophony capped off by a Deitemyer solo.
Sommers’ solo moment arrives in “Sofa,” which is as comfortable a tune as its title implies, a chamber waltz that is nuanced by Bruce’s comping of his friend’s dexterous playing. Johnson also gets to express himself with thoughtful notes that add to the luxurious ambiance.
“Lapse” begins with a rising guitar/sax expression, leading to a funky theme that isolates Madsen, who responds with a jaunty solo before Bruce takes off on another scintillating fret ride.
The final piece, “Greatest Hit #1,” bookends the album with another long, slightly experimental modal composition that begins with a simple, quiet Bruce figure and expands into a group effort. Listen closely to Sommers’ interplay with Madsen that generates a gratifying trio moment as Deitemyer joins in to generate momentum. Bruce’s wonderful space arrangement (and ultimate production of it, with Chad McCollough) creates one of the most pleasing listening experiences here. Later, Bruce inserts a brief moment of group disjunction, a part of his musical rhetoric that disrupts any linear pretext, something to keep the listener attentive. This part of Bruce’s compositional development is ‘in process’ but is loaded with potential.
This album encouraged this reviewer to seek opportunities to hear this group, and this leader, ln concert. Hopefully, more is to come, even if Bruce has now moved to Ohio. One hopes he doesn’t lose what is a fecund musical, beta collective that deserves serious attention.
If I Had a Jazz Radio Show: Anything on this album, given a proper context for listening, could be featured, but I would target “Reprieve:Reprise,” “Sofa,” “Major_ Chord,” and “Greatest Hit #1” for significant airplay.
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