The Rich Halley 4 Mess With Each Other…And With Your Ears
The Rich Halley 4’s previous album Requiem for a Pit Viper, from last year, hit hard with a frequently noir postbop vibe. Their new one, Back from Beyond, is considerably different. It might be even more improvisational, the tempos are considerably slower and the playing is more expansive. And it’s imbued with great wit. On one level, the operative question is if the listener’s going to have as much fun as the players – Halley on tenor sax and flute, his son Carson on drums, sparring partner Michael Vlatkovich on trombone and redoubtable bassist Clyde Reed holding it all together – obviously had making it. This is more of an album of ideas than melodies: with the exception of a couple of tracks, the quartet alludes to them much more often than they hit anything head-on for more than a few bars at a clip.
There are a handful of recurrent themes here, most notably an insistent pedal note interlude that makes for levity but also anchors the album’s most memorable number, Basalt. Bookended by terse minor-key funk, it’s a long modal piece featuring Halley’s most intense solo here, some tongue-in-cheek conversing with Vlatkovich, and a showcase for Reed’s ability to keep the suspense going as long as he can via hypnotically resonant chords that he veers away from just enough to ramp it up even further. That’s as dark as it gets on this album.
The opening track, Spuds, takes awhile to come together out of syncopated bop swing, Vlatkovich setting up a punchline with a phony fanfare introduction that becomes a recurrent jape for the horn players as the rhythm section rumbles and then the drums get in on the fun as well. Track two, Section Three morphs slowly from clave, to a hint of a jazz waltz, to reggae and then funk, packed with wry conversational jousting and and attempt by Vlatkovich to push the sax off the page just as Halley had done to him one track earlier. Reorbiting, a Sun Ra dedication, kicks off with a coy bass/trombone conversation, the sax hinting, as the rhythm coalesces, at Marshall Allen ozone-seeking blippiness but never going there. The longest cut, Solarium interweaves trombone and sax, sometimes shadowing each other, sometimes agitated, with more insistent, tongue-in-cheek pedalpoint. The freest and loosest, and maybe the funniest piece here is Continental Drift, which takes that idea to its most comedic level.
Or maybe the most entertaining composition here could be Broken Ground, Vlatkovich’s sirening trombone a centerpiece amidst deadpan alternate voicings, an almost too-casual-to-be-true Rich Halley solo and finally an interlude where trombone, bass and drum all line up on the head on the same pin. Track eight, The Mountain’s Edge is a jape kicked off by a flute call eventually answered by elephantine drums – cavemen in the Alps, or the Sierra Nevadas? The album ends with what appears to be an almost totally straight-up arrangement of the Burning Spear roots reggae classic Man in the Hills. Whether it falls apart, as it subtly threatens to do, is an ending that deserves not to be spoiled. Cerebral? Without a doubt. Funny? Absolutely. Who is the audience for this? Besides those who play this kind of music, anyone who perceives jazz as being just plain fun. Because that’s what this is.
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