The trouble with a lot of jazz albums is that a lot of bands can’t translate their interplay from the stage or even the rehearsal room to the studio. As a result, they sound stiff – or as if everybody was just trying to lay down their parts and get the hell out. Alto saxophonist and Bjorkestra bandleader Travis Sullivan’s New Directions, on the other hand, sounds like a live show, except with studio-quality acoustics. It’s a great summertime album, brightly tuneful, full of good spirits and inspired playing from pianist Mike Eckroth, bassist Marco Panascia and drummer Brian Fishler (AKA Frank Feta of Richard Cheese’s band). Sullivan favors a clear, uncluttered tone and strongly melodic extrapolations rather than any crazed, heavy breathing. But as attractive as the melodies are, this isn’t lightweight by a long shot. Intense? Not particularly. Subtle and fun? You bet.
The opening track, Jamia’s Dance works vividly expansive Sullivan explorations of an absurdly catchy central hook. Autumn in NH is not a drinking song as you might expect (New Hampshire tops all states but Wyoming in per-capita alcohol consumption) but rather a morosely lyrical mood piece that stretches the band as far out into free territory as they go here. A hard-charging, samba-tinged number, Tuneology picks up the pace and sets the stage for Hidden Agenda, which begins as a funky mid 70s style crime movie tune with echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver theme – the hidden agenda here seems to be a big, long crescendo that involves everybody in turn, with a funny Coltrane quote, a bass solo that nimbly and energetically works a piano line and a spiraling Sullivan salvo out. They cover Rodgers and Hart’s Spring Is Here slowly and make it much more wintry that you would expect; the catchy, sprightly Georgie contrasts an understated dark soul piano pulse with Sullivan spinning around brightly overhead. Their cover of Tears for Fears’ odious 80s schlockfest Everybody Wants to Rule the World is a real shocker – it’s unrecognizable until they hit the hook, almost, Sullivan defiantly evading its cloying quality and then immediately messing up the tempo, taking it out on a limb and handing it over to Eckroth. Third time around, Panascia’s panacea is to make it funky.
A jazz waltz, Leap of Faith is another track with a pensive undercurrent beneath Sullivan’s stunningly effortless, good-natured glissandos, Eckroth adding a wee hours wink, Sullivan making an abrupt shift in a much more straight-ahead direction afterward, setting the stage for a deliciously swirling crescendo. It’s the kind of moment you see in concert a lot, which doesn’t make it onto studio albums as much as it should. An enigmatically bustling song without words, Magic Monday has Sullivan and Eckroth trading busily opaque solos over Panascia’s muscular pulse. The album winds up with the title track, an aggressive, terse, catchy straight-up strut that wouldn’t be out of place in the JD Allen catalog, Panascia leaping to a sprint and then back again, Fishler finally getting a chance to cut loose and hit hard and makes the absolute most of it. File this under melodic jazz, yet another triumph for the Posi-Tone label, who in this decade are making a mark much in the same way that Impulse did in the 60s. Sullivan’s next gig is with Bjorkestra on June 14 at 9 at Highline Ballroom.