Wednesday, December 28, 2011

CD Review: Jason Stein Quartet - The Story This Time

Jason Stein Quartet
The Story This Time

It's been a good 14 months for Jason Stein. Last November, he released Three Kinds of Happiness with his trio Locksmith Isidore (go here for a review of it) and less than a year later this fine release hit the streets.

Stein plays bass clarinet exclusively, a rarity (maybe a first) in jazz, and he continues to develop his own identity on the instrument, incorporating the past accomplishments on the big stick, and using them in a way that's highly original. Taking that originality a step further, he has tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson along as his frontline foil. Jackson is a great choice on the basis of his musicianship, but the combined sound of the two reeds gives the music a snaky quality. Bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly round out this A-list of Chicago adventurers.

The Story This Time is divided pretty evenly between Stein originals and interpretations of others. The latter category presents a good idea of the bass clarinetist's bold thought process: While many musicians think nothing of playing three Monk tunes on an album, only a certain breed would choose "Skippy," "Gallop's Gallop" and "Work," three of his more obscure and, in at least one case, challenging pieces. For "Work," Jackson switches to contrabass clarinet, adding more of a low-end gait to the piece, making it even more playful. Abrams plays like a third voice in this track too, bowing along side the horns.

The other covers come from the Lennie Tristano lineage, with one tune each by the great pianist, and his proteges Warne Marsh and Lee Konitz. Marsh's "Background Music" speeds along sounding like vintage Ornette Coleman with this arrangement. Stein and Jackson almost sound like they have trouble keeping up with the tempo, though that is not a criticism. Konitz's "Palo Alto" begins with some very un-Konitz like honks and squawks from the horns before they settle into the theme. "Lennie Bird" doesn't leave a lot of room for horn players to breath between phrases, but it energizes these two, who solo simultaneously for three concise minutes.

The quartet stretches out in "Laced Case," Stein's nine-minute tribute to Steve Lacy, which is marked by tempo accelerations and open sections where the composer runs wild all over his instrument, moving from rumbles to simulated feedback. "Little Big Horse" could pass for a hard bop classic, with its easy going line and off-beat accents, and flow of ideas from the horns. Jackson enters during Stein's solo to add some color the bass clarinet, and the transition to his own solo feels impeccable. For "Hoke's Dream" the horns plays a series of long toned themes, while Rosaly gently moves freely around his kit. Stein begins in kind, eventually escalating his feeling to keep the excitement going. As wild as he gets, he never forsakes the melodic voice in favor of visceral shrieks, though.

With its combination of challenging covers and strong original works, The Story This Time is definitely one of the year's best releases.

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