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“To hit .400,” an umpire said to baseball legend Ted Williams just before he managed the feat in 1941, “a batter has got to be loose.” Saxophonist Brad Linde got that memo. “Loose” is the word for All-American, the baseball-themed second album by his Team Players ensemble. For all its obsession with rich melody and elaborate harmony, the album’s vibe is remarkably low-key; it’s as if Linde’s quintet just banged this music out during a Saturday afternoon hang.
Which means that even its weirdest material makes for a fun listen. Billy Wolfe, the band’s second reedman, contributes a four-movement suite called “On Ivy; Cracker Jacks (And the Infield Fly Rule)” that uses the atonal 12-tone system as its backbone. Not exactly hummable tunes—with the notable exception of its dual-horn fourth part, “Fieramente”—but the off-and-running energy of guitarist Aaron Quinn in its opening “Molto Allegro” immediately engages the ear and doesn’t let up. The slow “Tempo di Valse,” featuring bassist John J. Williamson, exchanges suspenseful intrigue for energy; the collective “A Piacere” (which segues into “Fieramente”) goes for ominousness—with its trajectory, and thus the ominousness, increasing as it goes.
Then there’s Linde’s Hammond organ, the album’s most—ahem—inside-baseball component. Not that it sounds like the chipper instrument one hears at the ballpark. Linde uses it for punchy groove on “Swing Batter Batter, Swing!” adding in a few of the greasy, soul-drenched long tones that mark the Hammond’s jazz tradition. These become the foundation of Linde’s solo piece “Louisville Slugger,” after its noodly first third settles into syncopated slinkiness. The organ also grounds two collective improvisations, based on fractured and somewhat silly—and yes, loose—takes of baseball’s two most famous organ songs, “Charge” (here called “Give me the hotdog, baby!”) and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The former of these is especially entertaining, with Quinn’s guitar combining the thorny style of Mary Halvorson with the sound of a setup on the fritz.
The rest of the material on All-American is decisively less offbeat. Indeed, being on-beat is key for All-American: its success depends on the crack rhythm section of Williamson and drummer Deric Dickens. Vivacious as the melody on Dickens’ “On Base Percentage” is, for example, it’s only possible by virtue of their rollicking swing. Ditto Linde’s surf-rock “Bat Boy,” with Wolfe’s and Linde’s dueling ramshackle tenor solos held together by nothing but scotch tape and backbeat. (Quinn’s pitch-perfect genre riffing gets extra credit here, too.) But they’re not all about adrenaline. Dickens’ delicacy with brushes, for example, allows the band to find heretofore unknown delicacy in Albert Ayler’s “Ghosts” and brings out great pathos in “With Frozen Feet.” Only the dreary album-closing rendition of “Just A Gigolo” misfires in this department.
That leaves All-American with a 14-for-15 record. In baseball, that’s the stuff of batting titles.