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It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” The immortal words of Duke Ellington have become the creed of Wynton Marsalis and other young players working in the jazz tradition. For these classicists, “that swing” defines the genre—if music doesn’t swing, it doesn’t merit the “jazz” appellation.
Pianist Eric Reed, a former Marsalis sideman, adheres to the classicists’ definition of swing. His latest album as a bandleader is pointedly titled The Swing and I, and its 1993 predecessor is called It’s All Right to Swing. For Reed, tradition is a way of life: A minister’s son, Reed played in churches as a child, and his playing is infused with reverential overtones. The 24-year-old has also been under the direct influence of Marsalis for 10 years; he was singled out as a teen-ager during a clinic given by the trumpeter. By 18, Reed was substituting in Marsalis’ band, and soon after began to work regularly with the superstar’s septet and quartet. The spell Marsalis cast over Reed’s playing is strong, but like voodoo, such enchantment only works on believers.
Reed’s belief in jazz as music that inherently swings is evident from the early placement of a three-part suite on Swing. Extended jazz composition is inexorably linked with Ellington and, in modern times, with Marsalis as well. The three movements of “Gemini Suite” correspond to aspects of Reed’s personality. Each section is given a male name: The first two characters in this personality triptych, “Scotty” and “Frank Marshall,” are open to interpretation, while the third, “Holden Caulfield,” bears the name of Salinger’s adolescent hero. But though Reed fancies himself as alienated as Salinger’s protagonist, his playing is decidedly mainstream.
The pianist’s greatest strength is a mastery of technique that bolsters the rich melodies in his solos. Whether playing clusters of notes or staging impressive runs up and down the keyboard, Reed never sounds hesitant. The suite’s three distinct styles range from the light bounce of “The First Man—Scotty,” which reflects the epic swing espoused by Reed before giving way to its brief but burning second movement. “The Second Man—Frank Marshall” features Bud Powell-style piano runs that blaze with emotion. Drummer Greg Hutchinson’s breakdown solo is a multilayered marvel (a show of skill for which one studio listener couldn’t contain his enthusiasm—an enthusiastic exhortation is audible during Hutchinson’s fervent brushwork). “The Fourth Man—Holden Caulfield” is a lovely, reflective ballad invoking the disaffected teen, and the song’s elegance more than compensates for its heavy-handed title.
Reed’s ability to maintain a distinctive voice while working within the jazz tradition serves him well. He follows Ahmad Jamal’s “Ahmad’s Blues,” a venerable reading of an obvious influence’s tune, with the colorful, train-inspired original “Ka-Boose.” The song’s clicking drum track chugs along before giving way to an impressionistic melody line that invokes scenery flying past, the relaxing drone of wheels on steel tracks, and the gentle rocking of the train over varying terrain before slowing down at its bluesy destination. Like Ellington’s “Traffic Jam,” Reed’s composition captures the feel of travel without resorting to novelty.
Such attempts at stylistic diversity are admirable, but not always successful. Toward the end of the album, religious themes surface, as on the midtempo hymn “Healing Hand,” the gospel-tinged canto “Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord,” and the precise ballad “Praise 1.” These somber interludes disrupt the disc’s frothy mood—after hearing the cartoon-inspired bop of “Felix the Cat,” it’s tough to jump into a house of prayer.
David S. Ware’s deep-throated skronking bucks the definition of jazz meted out by disciples of traditional swing. After all, swing can’t be defined by rhythm alone: If a piece of music rouses the listener, labels become irrelevant.
While Reed turns to the jazz of the ’40s and ’50s for inspiration, Ware draws on the abstract, freedom principles of the ’60s. Ware’s quartet doesn’t play classic jazz: Cryptology‘s “swing” is free, overdriven, and highly emotional. Some might argue that the ecstatic, exhaustively unsubtle music that comprises the album’s six-part suite is pure emotion channeled by technical neophytes. Yet on “Direction: Pleiades,” a theme is stated, deconstructed, and revisited in the manner of traditional jazz.
Ware has played professionally for over 30 years—he studied tenor saxophone with Sonny Rollins, and was an intrinsic part of the early-’70s New York loft scene wherein free-jazz players converged for improvisational workouts. Ware also worked with history’s most percussive pianist, Cecil Taylor, an unbreakable spirit whose muses have led him into harmonic heaven and occasional financial insolubility. Like Ware, Taylor is grounded in the history of jazz, and it’s apparent that he encouraged the saxophonist to follow similarly personal principles.
The fieriness of Ware’s sax can be traced to such combustible tenor players as Albert Ayler, Pharoah Sanders, John Coltrane, and Ware’s former mentor, Rollins. His tone is heavy and abrasive, and features a fevered, breathless quality that is analogous to speaking in tongues. Ware’s compositions twist and turn, fluctuating between nauseating pounding and exuberant screams. But despite the music’s impulsive sound, Ware has his bandmates memorize segments of his compositions—the players are then able to solo around these central themes. This technique is similar to bassist/composer Charles Mingus’ workshop method, which allowed for individual interpretation within the framework of large-scale compositions. I doubt that anyone would accuse Mingus of not swinging.
The quartet plays Ware’s demanding music without trepidation. Pianist Matthew Shipp is the antithesis of Reed—when Shipp hits a cluster of notes, they don’t ring so much as explode: His playing is characterized by bombast, but its emotional content doesn’t seem discursive. Shipp’s rhythmic companions, bassist William Parker and drummer Whit Dickey, are subtle in comparison to Ware and Shipp, yet maintain a vigorous drive that rarely falters during the suite’s protracted pieces. Ware’s music is fastidiously expressive without being factitious. Cryptology‘s intensity doesn’t lend itself to extended bouts of listening, yet its value is still significant. Like Reed’s heavenly odes, Ware’s compositions represent the mysterious, emotional search for a higher meaning. And while his music is less accessible than neotraditional jazz, it’s ultimately more liberating.