I admitted last week that I couldn't come up with a complete Best of the '00s, but if you were to ask me about jazz in the 1980s and what some of the best albums of that era were, I would quickly mention one album in particular that not only ranks as one of the best modern jazz albums of that period, but probably one of my favorite albums of all time - Bobby Previte's Pushing the Envelope.
This drummer first came to my attention as a participant of some of John Zorn's recordings from around that time (the Ennio Morricone tribute The Big Gundown most notably). But a friend turned me on to Pushing the Envelope around 1988 and while I didn't like it too much on the first spin, a few more intense listens it was clear that my initial uncertainty was because Previte was writing stuff like I'd never heard before. The sound of it felt almost like chamber jazz, with French horn and tenor sax playing over the rhythm section to create more of an ensemble sound even when someone was taking a solo. In one piece, it almost sounded like the piano was the only solo instrument, while everyone else played an unnerving melody around the tense keyboard.
Previte got a moment in the spotlight about four years ago when he teamed up with Charlie Hunter for a series of improv albums under the name Groundtruther. They were even on the cover of downbeat. While on tour with Hunter, he stopped in Whole Foods where I recognized him, much to his shock. I mentioned loving Pushing the Envelope and he thanked me "for knowing that I did something before two years ago."
Although Previte is a thoughtful drummer, his compositions are really his strong point. His various bands - which have included outfits like Hue and Cry, the more recent New Bump, some pithy one-offs on his other Gramavision albums following Envelope on albums like Claude's Late Morning and Empty Suits - possess qualities that have a great amount of detail put into the combination of various instruments. His Pan Atlantic Band features four European musicians and continues in this tradition, showcasing his smart approach in a sound that borders on '70s prog-jazz as much as straightahead jazz, Previte-style. (While looking for the cover image online, on site used a term like broke beat to describe the album, so he's really staking a unique realm for himself.)
Bassist Nils Davidsen deserves an award for holding down the metronomic one-note beat (playing on the one and three, no less) in opening "Deep Lake" for 10 minutes. The piece has several wide open spaces where Davidsen just pulses along while Benoit Delbecq drops in atmospheric sheen on the Fender Rhodes. At one point Previte and alto saxophonist Wolfgang Puschnig solo together over the oblivious but solid bass. Overall, the song takes it time getting to its destination and the band enjoys creating both the scenery on the trip and the wide open spaces between scene setting. As a reward for his discipline, Davidsen gets a brief, rapid solo to close the piece.
This approach - where things move slowly or main melodies give way to vamps that support solos - occurs throughout the album. On the title track, Puschnig and trombonist Gianluca Petrella create a huge, somewhat raunchy sound (possibly through overdubs since it sounds so thick) for the main theme. Delbecq solos with a lot of tremolo on the keyboard. It reminds these ears of "1958," another '80s Previte piece (from Bump the Renaissance) that sets a mood by having one hand of the pianist (Wayne Horvitz, just like on Envelope) repeat two skeletal notes of the chord throughout the piece. Talk about setting a scene.
Previte's recent history in spacey music comes out on "Veltin." His sits down at the Rhodes for nearly nine minutes of solo spacey noodling, that continually returns to a two-note motif. It never rises to the engaging level of the other tracks, but if Tortoise ever needed an extra musician to sit in at a show, Previte would fit right in.
The Pan Atlantic Band suits Previte's writing perfectly, saying a lot with a few notes or jumping into more animated solos when the opportunity presents itself. This is the kind of album that makes you want to explore their other work more. And it makes me want to catch up on the numerous Previte albums that have shot past my eyes before I could grab them.