Alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo hasn’t recorded as a leader in three years. His last disc under his own name—not counting Four Hands, One Heart, a duo release co-billed with pianist Larry Willis—was 2011’s Chronos, an at times surprisingly intense organ trio date on Posi-Tone. (We reviewed it.) His newest album, Threshold, is on his own label, Ksanti (as was Four Hands, One Heart). The disc features the same musicians as Chronos: Brian Charette (on piano here) and drummer Rudy Royston. They’re joined by trumpeter Josh Evans and bassist Ugonna Okegwo. (Buy Threshold from Amazon MP3.)
DiRubbo and Charette are a well-matched pair; the saxophonist’s inclination is to stay in a relatively melodic, lyrical zone, and the keyboardist provides a solid chordal foundation for him. The tunes, all of which are by DiRubbo except for an album-closing version of Charlie Parker‘s “Bloomdido,” have the exploratory hard bop feel of pieces from mid ’60s Blue Note albums. “Sun Steps,” in particular, has the blues-unto-modal groove one might hear on a Lee Morgan or Jackie McLean disc from 1962 or 1963, while “Pace” features sharp stabs from the horns, and hard piano chords, that lean toward the energy music of later in the decade. Royston’s jackhammer drumming on the latter track gives it an unstoppable forward momentum that DiRubbo rides like a surfer atop a wave of lava, the landscape burning away beneath him as he glides onward.
Stream “Sun Steps”:
There are two ballads on Threshold. The first is tucked right into the middle of the album—”Faith,” a slow but focused number on which DiRubbo keeps his tone on the horn fuzzy and in the middle of its range—he frequently blows quite low, often sounding almost like a tenor. The second, “Salter of the Earth,” is practically a solo saxophone performance; the backing trio of Charette, Okegwo and Royston are hushed and reverent, seeming to follow him as he wanders the landscape, contemplating the sky. It’s interesting that on both of the slow numbers, Evans is absent. His trumpet playing throughout Threshold is pure fire—when he pairs up with DiRubbo, they’re airtight, blowing in perfect unison, but his solos frequently take the music skyward in a way that leaves the whole band behind him. Perhaps he just doesn’t have much mellow introspection in him…
The majority of the album is upbeat and hard-swinging, though. “1970” features a shuffling Royston groove almost worthy of the Meters, and plenty of space for horns and piano to stretch out, without taking things too far afield; it’s mesmerizing. And the closing version of “Bloomdido” jumps and jitters with all the energy of bebop, but all the low-end impact modern recording techniques can provide. The bass and drums anchor the music more heavily than on Parker’s original recording, even when Charette begins to dance on the keys.
Despite its title, Threshold is not an album intended to take the listener into new realms. Mike DiRubbo is a player and composer who’s clearly in love with jazz as it is, not jazz as it might be. He’s the best kind of traditionalist—neither nostalgia-obsessed nor a fogey, just a guy with a sound that’s his own, yet easily identifiable as part of a decades-long continuum. Do you like music that has enough melody that you could write lyrics for the pieces and sing them, but which also has enough instrumental expressiveness that the solos actually keep you listening to hear what the next phrase will be, instead of just waiting around to see how the player will wrap it up and get back to the tune? Do you like to tap your foot while you listen? (I know these may not seem like high bars to clear, but if you believe that, you haven’t been listening to as much new jazz as I have.) If so, then Threshold will make you happy.