Independent jazz labels are the pushcart presses of the music world. Like their literary counterparts, they don't hand out big advances or guarantees, but they're often the first to make available the works of promising or neglected artists.
Some musicians like bassist Rufus Reid and guitarist Harry Leahey turn to small labels after rounding a corner in their careers; others, like pianist Anthony Davis and flutist James Newton, start early. In either case, musicians often find independent labels, shaded somewhat from the glare of commercial pressures, fertile ground for personal growth and experimentation.
Rufus Reid, for example, has never enjoyed the king of control he exerts on "Perpetual Stroll" (Theresa TR11). This is Reid's 28th album, yet it's his first as a leader. Known to many for his work with Dexter Gordon, Reid has wisely recruited two of his former colleagues -- pianist Kirk Lightsey and drummer Eddie Gladden -- to help make a smooth transition from sideman to leader.
He succeeds in preserving not only the rhythm section's "chemistry" -- his stated purpose -- but also in displaying his own gifts as a composer and arranger. The title track, a brisk, exhilarating workout, immediately establishes the groups' direction, bringing to mind such inspired and intelligent collaborations as the New York Jazz Quartet.
A richly expressive gift to Reed's wife, "Waltz for Doris," is a sometimes pensive, always melodic ballad stated in lush tones. Herbie Hancock's "One Finger Snap" slams the trio back into high gear, this time at a pace that would exhaust musicians with less experience together. After each member of the trio distinguishes himself in a variety of contexts, Reid finally steps out alone on an articulated version of Oscar Pettiford's "Tricotism." It's a fitting close to an album by a remarkable bassist.
Not long ago guitarist Harry Leahey found himself in a position similar to Reid's. He had made his reputation with the Phil Woods Quartet, but left to return to full-time teaching. His new Trio Album should come as a pleasant surprise to many jazz guitar fans unaware of his talent.
On "Still Waters" (Omnisound N1031) Leahey's style reflects many of his influences: Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel and expecially Jim Hall and Tal Farlow. Still, Leahey is a distinctive stylist in his own right, confident in his knowledge of the fret board and equipped with a strong sense of color and dynamics.
He contributes three of his own extended pieces to the album, each quite different in structure and mood. Perhaps the most evocative is "Rain dance," a gentle shower of notes amid the taut rhythm pulses Leahey and bassist Roy Cumming exchange. An other standout is Stephen Sondheim's overworked "Send in the Clowns." Leahey treats it to a bright, fresh solo arrangement, full of ringing harmonies and spacious arpeggios.
Given their commitment to creative improvisation, it's not likely that either Anthony Davis or James Newton will ever find major-label support. They've recorded together before, but on their new albums pursue ambitious projects on their own.
"Lady of the Mirrors" (India Navigation IN-1047) is a solo effort by Davis, encompassing two of his continuing interests: the extension of the jazz tradition (Ellington is his primary influence) and the concept that creative music should be appreciated on both a musical and metaphorical plane.
Ellington's influence is crystalized on "Man on a Turquoise Cloud," an extended blues which intentionaly and deftly recalls the master's touch. Other selections are considerably less accessible. They include mood pieces and technically challenging improvisations that will demand much from anyone accustomed to conventional tonality and static time signatures.
James Newton shares many of Davis' interests on "The Mystery School: Music for Wind Quintet" (India Navigation IN 1046). Side one is devoted entirely to "The Wake," a beautifully written and executed memorial to composer Howard Swanson. Like Swanson's own "Short Symphony," it combines both European and jazz elements in some passages and employs similar instrumentation.
Side two, however, is more in keeping with Davis' design. "Central Avenue" is paved with the relentless, often dissonant sounds of city nightlife, a vivid aural montage that speaks for itself. Much of its success is attributable to Newton's ability to weave contrasting textures and timbres together while shifting the tempo of the piece so that the absence of a conventional rhythm section is hardly noticeable.
As for his own playing, Newton often recalls Eric Dolphy's delicate phrasing on flute. But the mood piece, "Past Spirits," -- with its colorful tonal qualities and sharply drawn lines -- seems to owe much to Sam Rivers as well. If Newton continues to write and perform as imaginatively as he does on this album, those lofty comparisons are likely to be made often in the future.