Alto saxophonist Logan Richardson‘s third album, Shift, comes out this week on Blue Note. (Get it from Amazon.) It’s his debut for the label, following 2007’s Cerebral Flow, on Fresh Sound New Talent, and 2008’s Ethos, on fellow alto player Greg Osby‘s Inner Circle label. Neither of those albums was great. “Cerebral” was the right word for Richardson, on his debut; the music didn’t swing. It was fussy and overthought, full of meandering melodies and excessively complicated rhythms, the kind of thing that thrills musicians who are getting their master’s in jazz composition, but which sets audiences to checking their phones as soon as they lose count of the beat. Ethos was better, but the presence of a vocalist making non-verbal noises in the background dragged down even the best tracks.

Shift is different. It features a star-studded band—he’s joined by guitarist Pat Metheny and pianist Jason Moran, backed by bassist Harish Raghavan and drummer Nasheet Waits. These are guys who are deeply engaged with the tradition, not just as a springboard into some rarefied realm of conceptual abstraction but as a path to heartfelt expression and real beauty. And the compositions Richardson has written are still challenging, still barbed and edgy, but they’re also more welcoming; hell, there’s a version of Bruno Mars‘s “Locked Out of Heaven” on the album.

The opening track, “Mind Free,” is built around a hook that, if played with just a little bit more air and space between the phrases, would be a massive, R&B-style hook. As it is, it provides a platform for exciting, spirit-elevating solos from Metheny and Moran in particular, as well as terrific unison playing across the front line. The next piece, “Creeper,” is an eight-minute funk shuffle, on which Moran switches to electric piano—it has the feel of something by D’Angelo or mid ’70s Stevie Wonder, the reverb on Richardson’s horn giving it a dreamlike quality.

Richardson’s tone is piercing and sharp, and he frequently plays in a range closer to a soprano than an alto. This can be rough going at times, but when he locks in with Metheny on winding unison melodies reminiscent of Mark Turner‘s work with Kurt Rosenwinkel, the timbres of their respective instruments blend well, creating a single unified tone that seems to waver and shimmer in the air like a mirage.

Shift moves through multiple moods with 11 tracks and a nearly hour-long running time. Sometimes the band embraces a kind of rubato formlessness that makes it seem more like an ECM release than one on Blue Note. But it gets loud at times, too; the version of “Locked Out of Heaven” features some of Metheny’s most searing guitar on the disc, erupting with bursts of noise that only gradually lead into a half-speed, lurching version of the pop tune’s highly memorable chorus melody. As jazz versions of pop songs go, it feels almost like a willful perversion. And the album ends with “Untitled,” which isn’t a version of the D’Angelo hit, but has a similar surging, soulful mood and features some of the band’s most straightforward playing. It returns the album to the melodic and rhythmically straightforward territory it staked out on “Mind Free,” giving the whole thing the feel of a journey that’s come full circle.

Based on this evidence, Logan Richardson‘s journey is far from complete. As a composer and a player, he still seems to be figuring out who he is and what he wants to say. But Shift lives up to its title, moving him away from the arid, hyper-intellectual territory he inhabited on his first two albums without completely surrendering to crowd-pleasing power moves.

Phil Freeman

Watch the video for “Slow”:

Buy Shift from Amazon

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