As a person who loves jazz but isn’t a musician, I have learned that the bassist is often a vehicle for clarity and context when the music isn’t immediately accessible. And when I think of modern/postmodern jazz ensembles fronted by or featuring iconic bassists, my mind naturally focuses on three such musicians: Charles Mingus, Charlie Haden, and Dave Holland. Each of these greats demonstrated facility in both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ styles and, with their colleagues, took sub-genres to new places.
Two recent releases by up-and-coming musicians who have emerged from almost opposite directions of experience, Ethan Philion and Billy Mohler, are good representations of how bassists contribute singular visions to the genre.
By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
In Chicago, we are fortunate to have had many versatile jazz bassists. Ethan Philion, who is clearly a member of that group and was the winner of the 2019 International Society of Bassists Jazz Competition, recently released Gnosis, a more compact expression of outsider music motivated by his affinity for the work of Mingus, as demonstrated by his first album, Meditations on Mingus, a larger band celebration of that complicated bassist’s legacy.
Gnosis is certainly a Chicago album: the supporting players are Greg Ward on alto, Russ Johnson on trumpet, and the ubiquitous Dana Hall on drums. In the middle, up front, is Philion, who serves as a steady port in the rising and falling sonic tides of his music.
Besides of Mingus, it’s easy to conjure the presence of Haden in Ornette Coleman’s groups, or perhaps of Holland on Conference of the Birds, as one listens to Philion’s compositions and arrangements. The opener “The Boot” is kick started by Hall and squeals from Ward and Johnson before Philion appears with a deep and woody vamp that sets the pace and allows the horns to explore while the bass and drums drive forward.
Mingus’ “What Love” follows, in this case a lazier rhythm that hovers around Philion’s more animated playing. “Sheep Shank” returns to a more frantic vibe, layered upon Hall’s manic drumming.
“Nostalgic” is practically ambient in comparison, with Philion exploring his higher notes almost like playing an African string instrument. Ward and Johnson practice elegant restraint as the bassist returns to his lower notes as the emotions drift. “Comment Section” is an improvised rising cacophony, a metaphor for today’s frenetic socio-political online discourse.
The title cut is a more clearly composed, exotic, piece, built on an Eastern-tinged riff by Philion that redirects that cacophony into a horn chorus before the bassist gets his chance at a final solo, to which the horns seem to bow in obeisance, supplying a reverent and increasingly laudatory affirmation.
Those who avoid ‘outside’ jazz should take a chance on this album; Philon provides the focalpoint the listener needs and his partners’ playing is superb.
Ethan Philion, Gnosis Sunnyside, 2023 PURCHASE NOW
Ethan Philion, bass
Greg Ward, alto saxophone
Russ Johnson, trumpet
Dana Hall, drums
Contagious Music, 2023
By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2
On the West Coast, Billy Mohler has emerged from a sprawling career in pop circles to become a regionally recognized jazz leader, and Ultraviolet is his third album with a solid quartet made up of trumpeter Shane Endsley, saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, and drummer Nate Wood. While Mohler’s music is not as ‘outside’ as Philion’s, his composition style befits the current progressive trend toward improvisation off of fragmented melody and vigorous rhythm.
Another difference is that Mohler, on this album, creates a suite effect, with several short, isolated tracks bridging broader exploits. After a deconstructed tone poem, “Matador,” Mohler’s funky playing introduces the title cut, with the band evincing a Bad Plus-ian tightness that Speed is currently engaged in.
“Disorder II” involves a synthesized echo and a more abstract ensemble response, leading to “The Wait,” a brooding commentary anchored by Mohler’s heavy-toned riff and Wood’s rustling accompaniment. The interplay between Endsley and Speed is scintillating on this outstanding piece.
“Sorrow,” like “Matador,” rides a subtle Latin bass line and minimal comment from the horns before “Aberdeen,” though relatively short, tells a foreboding story that seems to carry on the mood that “Sorrow” began.
Then things pick up with “Evolution,” a spritely delivery that suggests a recovery from the dour world of the previous pieces. Here Speed demonstrates what makes his own trio music appealing, dancing atop the dexterous picking of Mohler and adjoining rhythmic drumming from Wood.
“Disorder I” is, again, a pensive locution before something more colloquial. “Reconstruction” builds on Mohler’s bouncy, Hollandesque intro and proceeds to a positive statement heralded by Speed and Endsley’s reveille-ish melodic phrasing.
If I still had a radio show, I would be playing cuts from these albums back-to-back to pair the bass-led, left-of-center efforts for maximum effect. In them, Ethan Philion and Billy Mohler, with their more-than-qualified friends, provide exciting representations of jazz reinvention that expand pleasurably on previous tropes to provide pleasurable and interesting performances.
Billy Mohler, Ultraviolet Contagious Music, 2023 PURCHASE NOW
Billy Mohler, bass
Shane Endsley, trumpet
Chris Speed, tenor saxophone and clarinet
Nate Wood, drums
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at firstname.lastname@example.org