An album that starts out giving up the funk à la John Scofield (with a faint hint of the “Tonight Show” band) quickly turns into one hell of an inventive surprise. Ann Arbor-based guitarist Carl Michel, whose last release (1998) was a relaxed, bluesy set with a pianoless quartet (featuring excellent work from alto saxophonist Mike Graye and the priceless rhythm duo of Tim Flood, bass, and Gerald Cleaver, drums), delivers nine ideas for jazz octet that’ll have fans reaching for comparisons with the Gil Evans and Charles Mingus bands.
Among the many strengths and pleasures on this disc are Michel’s compositions (and arrangements thereof) which open things up wonderfully for the soloists. Totally justifying the freedoms they’ve been granted, Graye on alto, Andrew Bishop on tenor sax and clarinet, Paul Finkbeiner on trumpet and flügelhorn, and Chris Smith on trombone (also Michel on guitar and Ellen Rowe on piano) rise to every occasion with the kind of confidence usually associated with the big time. All the great orchestras of jazz history, from Ellington’s and Basie’s to Gillespie’s and Monk’s, relied on soloist power when it came to realizing a vision.
Michel often starts out with really gorgeous melodic material (hear “Jitterbug,” with its Mingusesque “Pussy Cat Dues”-like clarinet — or “Forbidden Fruit” recalling the Carla Bley-Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra — or “You Probably Will” with its moody Gil Evansish suspensions), but each tune’s success ultimately depends on some boss inventiveness from everybody concerned. It’s this sense of heavy responsibility fulfilled that makes Michel’s new project such a joy.
One of the more intriguing approaches to soloing in evidence here is collective improvising (more than one soloist playing at the same time), an idea associated with traditional New Orleans jazz and which took on major importance in the work of Mingus’ forward-thinking groups of the ’50s and ’60s, Ornette Coleman’s quartet and some of John Coltrane’s wilder adventures. But Michel’s use of it, rather than giving his music an “avant” sound, creates a timeless space of interaction, a realm of relaxed joyfulness where King Oliver clinks glasses with Gil Evans.
George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].