Endemic Ensemble Delivers a Gorgeously Tuneful 2012 Album
Yet another reason why we wait til the eleventh hour before putting up the annual Best Jazz Albums list: a release like Seattle group Endemic Ensemble’s stunningly tuneful, sophisticated latest one, Lunar. With three first-rate composers, swinging rhythm, great tunes and purposeful playing – always in the service of the song, and usually anchored in the blues – this is one of 2012’s standout albums. Bassist Steve Messick plays with a full-bodied, woody tone and makes every note count. Drummer Ken French is absolutely brilliant, an inventive and expressive player who goes for counterintuitive but never loses sight of the groove. Pianist David Franklin builds a lyrical third stream backdrop for baritone saxophonist Matso Limtiaco and tenor/soprano player Travis Ranney. Each reedman is especially noteworthy here for using the entirety of his register: Ranney builds a comfortable and welcoming home in the smoky lows, and Limtiaco wields his baritone with Mulliganesque flair in the upper mids.
The album’s title track sets the tone right off the bat, a brisk, catchy swing tune by Messick with genial solos from both tenor and baritone, French throwing in the occasional wry accent, everybody trading eights with the drums on the way out. The knockout track here is Return of the Pelicans, a vividly cinematic, uneasy ballad also by Messick, anchored by a vintage psych-blues bassline under shadowy horns, some wonderful chromatics from Franklin and finally a matter-of-factly tiptoeing bass solo.
Lilu, by Franklin works its way up to a gypsy-tinged waltz, latin-inflected chordal piano over lush cymbal ambience, crescendoing tenor and bari solos leading to a cliffhanger of a drum solo: it’s the last thing you’d expect to hear. They follow that with a Messick miniature, March-Bop, basically a drum solo, interrupted. Another Messick number, Solace makes its way slowly through Franklin’s judicious minimalisms to a casual conversation between tenor and baritone – it’s less consolation than simply good company.
Franklin’s 5 Syllables, another swing tune, hints at late 50s Cali noir before his own incisive block chords pick it up, turning it over to the baritone and then the bass before a jaunty dixieland interlude. Messick’s A Short Walk with Many Steps is a piano/bass duet that playfully hints at a fullscale swing, followed by the rich bari/soprano harmonies and lively bounce of another upbeat, melodic Messick tune, Spikenard. From there they jazz up Chopin and don’t embarrass themselves, and end with a darkly majestic clave groove by Limtiaco, Do the Math. Ranney’s smartly chromatic variations, echoed by Franklin, are a high point in this moody but bitingly intense piece. It’s a safe bet that if these guys were in New York instead of Seattle, they’d be much better known: albums like this just make you want to catch a west coast flight, jet lag be damned.