Straight Forward is a shade too conservative for its own good.
New Faces is collective jazz sextet put together by the producers behind Posi-Tone Records, and Straight Forward serves not just as the title of the group’s first album, but as a mission statement for the group, as well. Posi-Tone is the home to lots of crackling mainstream jazz, the kind of jazz that wraps itself in the warm embrace of the old “Blue Note sound” of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. In 2018, that proposition is obviously not cutting edge. But in the right hands, the music still provides a jolt.
The faces in this band are newish but not baby-faced, and that’s just fine. Vibraphonist Behn Gillece is now a veteran of the New York scene, and Josh Lawrence is a trumpeter with roots in both Philadelphia and New York. Their crisp tunes dominate Straight Forward. The front line additionally features Roxy Coss on saxophone, who has a decade in New York under her belt and is the founder and director of the Women in Jazz Organization. The rhythm section features pianist Theo Hill, bassist Peter Brendler, and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza, each of whom is a staple of the scene. No one in the band is a 22-year-old “young lion.” Rather, this is an experienced group with a wide range of styles at their disposal.
Straight Ahead recreates the kind of super-solid, everyone’s-a-leader date that Blue Note and Prestige used to crank out 50+ years ago. It seems to be no coincidence that Hill often sounds like Cedar Walton and Gillece brings to mind Bobby Hutcherson. Roxy Coss provides the weight on tenor saxophone that we might have previously gotten from Joe Henderson. The most important element of this kind of date is that the compositions are interesting, sophisticated, and inspire great blowing. On every level, these tunes deliver.
Gillece’s “Follow Suit” sounds like a classic Blue Note scorcher, starting with an atempo introduction of the harmonies and then hopping into a popping and harmonized theme that is raw meat for improvising. The turnaround set of chords whips you back to the theme each time around, and each soloist is exciting. Lawrence’s tone throughout of burnished, but it’s particularly great to hear him so rich even when playing with lightning clarity. Similarly, Coss’s tenor is firm-toned despite speed and complexity of line. Gillece’s two other tunes are just as good. “Down the Pike” is a craggy line in the Andrew Hill tradition with a bouncing groove that is a particularly fine fit for pianist Hill. “Vortex” is more contemplative, a floating ballad built on transparent harmonies that allows the soloists to stretch out at greater length. Coss is sumptuous, playing arpeggios that turn into effective melodic arcs as she flutters them up and down her horn.
Lawrence offers two sharp compositions. “Hush Puppy” features a fast, descending bop line played in tight unison by muted trumpet and vibes, leading to a series of tasty, quick solos by Lawrence, Coss, Gillece, and Hill, as well as traded eights with Sperrazza. “Frederico” is a Latin groover with yet another attractive melody and chord sequence. Other tunes by Posi-Tone artists who are not in the band round out the set: “Happy Juice” is a sunny theme by Jon Davis, and Brian Charente’s genial mid-tempo “West Village” is a beautiful tune. The truth is, all the themes here are lovingly crafted. Only one, Herbie Hancock’s “King Cobra,” from his 1963 release My Point of View, comes from the era that New Faces is overtly emulating.
The larger question that hangs over this release, however, is the age-old question of how to weigh innovation against emulation in the development of this music. Straight Forward sounds like a very good—but not exceptional—album from the classic Blue Note era. The craft of the tunes is superb, and the soloists are strong, but there is little opportunity for the band members to stretch out and reveal a sense of power or emotion. Things are so sharp and concise here that the program starts to feel too much like imitation. The players are wonderful and have musical personalities, but the constraints on the playing keep us from hear more than the striking ability to evoke the past.
Listening to other music by Coss, Lawrence, and Gillece, particularly, gives you the assurance that these artists are not mere copycats. And Straight Forward is pure pleasure as far as it goes. But after several listenings you may be left with the feeling that this Posi-Tone supergroup sampler is not meal as much as a spread of tasty appetizers. In an era when every player under 40 has facility and familiarity with free-bop, with soul-jazz, with hip-hop rhythms, with global hybrids of jazz, a date that is this narrow feels slightly affected. Even when Wynton Marsalis arrived on the scene in the early 1980s and led a revival of 1960s hard bop after a decade of fusion and the emergence of smooth jazz, that music had a probing sense of adventure, at least at first.
Straight Forward is a shade too conservative for its own good—or at least for the good of the six musicians who are behind it. The music is compelling but in a curated way. For folks who like their jazz cautious, this is a sparkling and daring disc. For those who prefer jazz to push the limits, New Faces is decidedly old school.