Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt‘s fourth CD with his working band—tenor saxophonist JD Allen, pianist Danny Grissett, bassist Dwayne Burno, and drummer Gerald Cleaver—has been described as a “ballad session,” but it’s really just a slightly more simmering album than its two predecessors, 2010′s Men of Honor and 2011′s The Talented Mr. Pelt. The trumpeter (who I interviewed in November) is not as indebted to Miles Davis as some other players out there—his open horn sound is much less piercing and sharp, and he employs a mute much less often than Davis, certainly not making it a linchpin of his style—but his quintet’s interactions are very much in the spirit of Davis’s mid ’60s group with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams. And while The Talented Mr. Pelt at times recalled early recordings by that group, like E.S.P. and Miles Smiles, Soul reminds me, at times, of Nefertiti, a moody disc from relatively late in the group’s lifespan.
There are substantial differences, of course, between the two groups, and the two bodies of work. Indeed, the differences are so many, and so impossible to ignore, that they almost render the comparisons invalid and lazy. So let’s move on to talking about what makes the Jeremy Pelt Quintet such a top-shelf band, and Soul such an excellent album.
Soul (buy it from Amazon) begins with a trio of five- to six-minute compositions—”Second Love,” “The Ballad of Ichabod Crane” and “Sweet Rita Part 2: Her Soul,” a piece composed by pianist George Cables and also recently recorded by The Cookers, a group whose two albums I reviewed here almost a year ago. “Ichabod” is an almost strutting blues, with terrific piano work by Grissett and rock-steady timekeeping from Cleaver, who many probably know best as a free or avant-garde player. Working with Pelt’s group, he demonstrates a total mastery of blues and swing, anchoring the group quite firmly while still managing to make the drums a powerfully expressive instrument. “Sweet Rita” is the only time Pelt plays with a mute on Soul, and the reined-in horn blends beautifully with Allen’s murmuring, introspective tenor saxophone. Allen (Burning Ambulance #4′s cover subject) has a lighter touch here than he does on the albums he makes with his own trio, where he tends toward concise, moody statements. On Soul, particularly on extended tracks like the 8:36 “The Tempest” and the 11:20 “What’s Wrong is Right,” he drifts along for minutes at a time, letting the melody and an innate feel for the blues take him where they will.
Pelt’s playing on “The Tempest” is particularly fierce; he cuts loose with long, ribbonlike upper-register runs in the manner of Freddie Hubbard, dancing around the piece’s melody before diving right back into it, as on target as a predatory bird. Indeed, the album’s two longest tracks are also its best, allowing the entire band to romp and interact together in fascinating, yet viscerally thrilling ways.
There’s a surprise element added to Soul, too: On “Moondrift,” the quintet is joined by vocalist Joanna Pascale. It’s a straightahead reading of the Sammy Cahn standard, at 3:45 a good 90 seconds shorter than anything else on the album. In a way it serves as a rest break between the first five tracks and the disc’s final stretch, comprising the epic “What’s Wrong is Right” and the closing “Tonight…”
Soul is a tremendously accomplished, utterly pleasurable demonstration of the power of a working band operating at peak strength. There’s not a bad track or dead spot anywhere in its 53 minutes; it’s not only the best album yet by Pelt and his quintet, but one of my favorite jazz releases of the 21st Century. If you’re not paying attention to what this group is up to, you’re really missing out.