by Phil Freeman
Pianist David Ake is also an author and professor, so he doesn’t record very often. But earlier this year, Posi-Tone Records reissued his 2005 solo album, In Between, and now they’ve followed that up with Bridges, a sextet recording that features trumpeter Ralph Alessi, alto saxophonist Peter Epstein, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Mark Ferber. The disc, composed of 11 Ake originals, is modern/modernist in a way that nods to minimalist classical music as much as the jazz past—it’s like a combination of the aesthetic heard on Blue Note albums from 1963-64 and, at times, the work of composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.
The modern composition influence is most strongly felt on the disc’s opening title cut, where the piano and horns play a repeating figure that’s like water dripping onto the surface of a still pond, and recalls the opening “Pulses” movement of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, played at half speed. The mesmerizing quality is preserved, without the pulse-racing aspect; it’s more of a slow build, like a procession up the aisle of a non-denominational religious shrine. The second piece, “Sonomads,” is more conventionally jazzy, but Ferber’s drum pattern starts out more march than swing, before bubbling up into an aggressive tumbling clatter. Ake and Colley maintain a rock-steady, minimal pattern, and the horns interject relatively rarely—it’s all structurally similar to what the Miles Davis quintet did on “Nefertiti,” though everyone here is hitting harder than on that legendarily hushed piece. That’s succeeded by “Waterfront,” a two-minute piano solo that’s pretty, if mostly cocktail-ish with a few slight stride interjections here and there.
“We Do?” is easily the album’s most rollicking track, so no surprise that it comes right at the midpoint—if this were an LP, it would close out Side One. The horns leap and caper as the Mingus-thick bass line lurches forward and back; all the solos are high-energy, with plenty of bluesy punch. That’s succeeded by its direct opposite, the atmospheric, almost avant-garde “Boats (Exit).” Colley bows the strings, creating a deep and resonant rumble; Alessi and Coltrane hiss and squeal and honk, creating tones rather than notes; Ferber dances across his cymbals; and Ake plays a slow, gentle melody that’s almost funereal. If he wasn’t there to anchor it, this piece would become almost entirely free, but introspective, too; in its way, it’s sort of reminiscent of some of Bill Dixon‘s 1990s work on the Black Saint label.
One of the album’s longest pieces, “Year in Review,” begins with a thick, thumping bass intro from Colley, whereupon the horns come in all together in a whirling, stormy fanfare. Ake himself propels the music from the low end of the keyboard, as Ferber crashes along and the horns continue to blare at each other until finally Ravi Coltrane battles his way out of the pack, taking a bluesy and emphatic solo. Alessi follows him with a flurry of piercing high notes. Interestingly, when the pianist takes his solo, the piece becomes a very different animal, at times reminiscent of early ’60s Cecil Taylor in the way it fractures and unsettles the traditional piano trio. This is especially true once the horns begin to slide back into the mix behind him, Alessi squawking through a mute as the two saxophonists wail like wraiths.
“Dodge,” which at nearly nine and a half minutes is the album’s longest piece, gets seriously weird in the middle, too. Somewhere around the four-minute mark, Alessi embarks on a scrowly, muted solo as Ake digs deep into the most abstract vocabulary he’s got available to him, and the bassist and drummer begin a slow death-march of throbbed chords and smashed cymbals. What began as an uptempo romp, punctuated by a solo on which Ravi Coltrane sounds more like his father than at perhaps any other point in his career, has become a strange journey through fog. As the other horns re-enter, it only gets more abstract, until at last everything concludes with some fleet bass and drum breaks from Colley and Ferber.
Bridges lives up to its title, transitioning the listener smoothly between multiple jazz “realms.” It may not seem like your typical Posi-Tone release, but this is a label that put out a record by Sam Rivers early on and has supported other players’ adventurous ideas in the past (check out Tarbaby‘s The End of Fear sometime). David Ake is not a big name in jazz, only because he’s got other things going on. But this record should get—and hold—serious listeners’ attention, and put pressure on him to get back into the studio, soon.