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Moving out of the woodshed and into the fire, Greg Osby has gradually and somewhat unexpectedly surpassed Kenny Garrett as the premier jazz alto saxophonist of his generation over the past five years. But before he could become New York City’s darling, he had to ditch his forceful streetwise rhythms and the sub-par rapping he used to like so well and begin crafting an equally jolting but more personal and persuasive aesthetic within the realm of post-Motown bop.

Because of its straight-ahead format and acoustic setting, Osby’s 1996 album, Art Forum, piqued the curiosity of the jazz establishment, even though it contained less-than-memorable compositions. But, as evidenced in 1997’s poignant Further Ado and 1998’s enigmatic live Banned in New York, Osby was beginning to write some of the most refreshing compositions in contemporary bebop as well as becoming a thoroughly inventive song interpreter and significant band leader. Last year, he released A Friendly Fire, a duet with tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, which became a favorite, and produced albums by vibraphonist Stefon Harris and pianist Jason Moran, which proved to be two of 1999’s best jazz records. Already this year, he’s produced Blue Note’s New Directions, which features him and some of his proteges interpreting songs from the label’s fabled ’60s period; another album slated for release next fall, tentatively titled Inner Circle, will feature Osby with his working ensemble of the past three years.

Usually such prolificacy either raises artists to new creative plateaus or simply burns them out. Osby’s newest album, The Invisible Hand, argues strongly for the former. In fact, it could prove to be as significant as Banned in New York, because it reunites him with one of his most adventurous mentors, pianist Andrew Hill, as well as with two former M-Base cohorts, saxophonist and flutist Gary Thomas and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Also contributing an intriguing presence are the harmonically advanced guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Scott Colley. The Invisible Hand is also Osby’s most sensual and introspective statement yet; it retains his rangy structures and brainy improvisations but advances a sense of rhythmic and collective improvisational understatement—and harmonic lushness.

Osby’s diamond-hard tone, agility, and oblique phrasing are ideally suited to intensely swinging and/or funk excursions, yet some of his most poignant playing arises on his ballads—and ballads set the mood of The Invisible Hand. James Hanley and Ballard MacDonald’s bop classic “Indiana” is the record’s perkiest moment, but the spacious arrangement at the beginning—Osby’s surreptitious approach to the melody and his inventive clarinet overdubs—imbues the song with avant-garde impressionism. What could have been a sunny walk in the park, the Fats Waller standard “Jitterbug Waltz,” instead reinvents harmonies and deconstructs rhythms as Osby and Hill fracture the jovial melody into a sonic jigsaw puzzle. The album’s foreboding allure is best illustrated in the enchanting reading of Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy,” wherein Osby’s bittersweet alto probes through the melody against the stirring harmonic backdrop of Hall’s dark guitar chords and Thomas’ mournful woodwinds. When Osby begins to chisel away at the melody against Thomas’ swirling flute, the two create an eerie sensation that recalls some of Charles Mingus’ most daring work.

Osby has always played in a pensive—sometimes excruciatingly cerebral—mode and avoided cliche#s at all costs. His circuitous improvisational lines usually zip through complex rhythms. But as heady as Osby’s phrasing can be, his forlorn tone and harmonies can be as simple and poignant as an e.e. cummings poem. Hill helps buttress the sense of emotional turmoil with solos and accompaniments full of elastic rhythms and unusual harmonies. Osby and Hill’s bracing empathy is highlighted in a duet performance on Osby’s reflective “The Watcher,” in which Osby’s alto drifts afloat, then drizzles through Hill’s dense bed of jolting notes. Rhythmically livelier, but no less melancholy, is Hill’s drunken waltz “Tough Love,” in which both Osby’s and Hill’s serrated melodies run between joy and sorrow.

Having two legends like Hill and Hall serve an equally eccentric leader sometimes amounts to nothing more than a clash of egos. That could have been the case here, because Hill and Hall have never played together before, and they are not known as sidemen. Apparently, though, there wasn’t much ego-tripping—as illustrated by Hall’s beautiful ballad “Sanctus.” The piece has an Ellingtonian spell around it; Hill, Thomas, and Hall create stark accompaniments under Osby’s wistful melody. Hill’s “Ashes” is another delight: Osby, Hill, and Hall burrow deep in collective improvisation that sounds neither cluttered nor staid, thanks especially to the rhythmic colors from Carrington.

The Invisible Hand’s astonishing romanticism does not owe entirely to Osby’s splendid performances, nor to Hill and Hall’s glowing contributions. The haunting renditions of Quincy Jones’ “Who Needs Forever” and Osby’s sumptuous “With Son” highlight the intriguing woodwind palettes created by Osby and Thomas. Although Thomas’ role on this disc is mostly that of colorist, “With Son” showcases his pithy tenor saxophone solo. Carrington also sparkles as her shimmering cymbal works and slanted rhythms lend textural nuance to the compositions. Colley keeps the lowest profile, but nestled underneath the kaleidoscope of fractured melodies and rhythms lie his economical bass lines—which often serve as both melodic counterpoint and brawny accompaniment to the man in charge. CP