Though the word has fallen out of favor, combos still create most of the music in jazz, for stylistic, financial and practical reasons. Recently, several jazz veterans have released albums that capture the special intimacy of small group recordings extremely well. In some cases these albums also reveal a musical bond, a remarkable empathy, developed among musicians over several decades.
Sphere: 'Four for All'
Sphere is a classic example of a group that's played together so well and so long that the lineup seems indivisible: pianist Kenny Barron, saxophonist Charlie Rouse, drummer Ben Riley and bassist Buster Williams. The group was originally formed to celebrate the legacy of Thelonious Sphere Monk, but its new album, "Four for All" (Verve 831 67-1), contains only one Monk tune, the oft-neglected "San Francisco Holiday." Both Barron and Rouse swing effortlessly over Monk's typically bumpy terrain, spurred on by Riley's incisive rhythms.
The rest of the album features mostly original material. Everyone but Riley contributes a piece. Williams' "Lupe," for instance, is a Caribbean delight. It's precisely the sort of calypso tune Sonny Rollins has long favored, and while Rouse doesn't have Rollins' robust tone, his sax is invigorating nevertheless. Nearly as enjoyable is Rouse's singing, swinging approach to "This Time the Dream's on Me," a brisk Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer ballad made even brisker by a series of choruses from Barron and Williams. All in all, this album is a terrifically enjoyable and cohesive effort by one of the best jazz bands around.
Charlie Haden: 'Quartet West'
Charlie Haden's "Quartet West" (Verve 831 673-1) is a surprisingly strong collaboration featuring the bassist and three of his West Coast friends: saxophonist Ernie Watts, pianist Alan Broadbent and drummer Billy Higgins. Surprising because while Haden and Higgins are well attuned to each other, having first met as teen-agers, the pairing of Haden and Watts may strike some as a bit odd. Haden, after all, is generally associated with the more adventurous and political side of jazz, while Watts is best known for his long stint with the "Tonight Show" band and his Grammy-winning version of "Chariots of Fire."
It soon becomes apparent, though, that Haden and Watts are willing to meet each other halfway. The result is an album that is neither particularly daring nor commercial -- solid and accessible is more like it.
With his rich tone and uncluttered phrasing, Haden underpins each performance elegantly, particularly a dark, moving version of "Body and Soul," and Higgins' fluttering brushes and hypersensitive sticks never intrude. Broadbent contributes several enjoyable performances; he has a bright, lyrical touch and is a fluent be-bopper. But it's Watts, with his brawny sound and harmonic finesse, who's responsible for the album's most exhilarating track (Charlie Parker's "Passport") and its most insinuating one (Pat Metheny's lovely ballad, "Hermitage").
Clearly, Haden sees this album as an opportunity to honor some of his influences and peers. Besides Parker and Metheny, there are evocative homages to Haden's parents, Ornette Coleman, Bill Evans and even Raymond Chandler. The latter is remembered by a film noir vignette composed by Haden called "Bay City," inspired by Chandler's novel "Farewell, My Lovely."
Special Edition: 'Irresistible Forces'
"Irresistible Forces" (MCA-5992) is the fifth album by drummer Jack DeJohnette's Special Edition and arguably its best. At the very least, this has to be considered the band's most colorful and ambitious release. With its electronic textures built around DeJohnette's pulsating keyboards, Mick Goodrick's atmospheric guitar solos and Lonnie Plaxico's funky bass patterns, the album's title track combines elements of rock and jazz. But if this is fusion music, it's the feisty sort, far more muscular and passionate than what the idiom has generally produced.
As each performance unfolds, it becomes clear that DeJohnette has set out to explore a variety of moods. Among other tunes, there's "Preludio Pra Nana," a lush, soothing showcase for percussionist Nana Vasconcelos and for Greg Osby's alto and Gary Thomas' flute; "Herbie's Hand Cocked," a rhythmically intriguing tribute to Herbie Hancock that reexamines (and nearly reinvents) a couple of his melodies; "47th Groove," a boisterous blend of street funk and riffing horns; and Osby's all-out tenor sax assault on "Osthetics," which features DeJohnette at his most explosive. Also included is a newly arranged version of the drummer's "Silver Hollow."
Jimmy Heath: 'Peer Pleasure'
Saxophonist Jimmy Heath's "Peer Pleasure" (Landmark LLP 1514) is something of a tour de force. In paying tribute to some of his friends and heroes -- notably Ben Webster, Johnny Hodges, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane -- Heath gracefully wields three horns, switching from his customary tenor and soprano to play the alto on, among other tunes, a touching tribute to Hodges, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Whatever the range of his horn, Heath displays certain constants as a player. His tone is sharply defined. He's always mindful of the melody, and his choice of material and supporting musicians is first rate. A vastly underrated composer, Heath also is responsible for writing some of the album's best tunes, such as "Ellington's Stray Horn" and "Forever Sonny." These radiate not only great affection for their subjects but an unmistakable lyricism that's come to define so much of Heath's music.