Eric Person, a longtime former sideman with Chico Hamilton and Dave Holland, achieves the kind of musical transcendence required of a project with such an overtly religious theme. At the same time, the aural joys found throughout Thoughts on God are such that listeners don’t have to focus on its spirituality in order to have a richly rewarding experience with the album.
The complexities, and deep emotional resonance, of Thoughts on God (due November 6, 2012 from Person’s own Distinction Records) are indicative of just how much work Person has put into this. In fact, the saxophonist has been at work constructing this song cycle off and on since back in 1984.
That gives Thoughts on God a sense of valedictory wonder, as Person and Co. touch on every corner of the tradition.
You’ll find, amongst the standout moments here, swinging Basie-like brawn (“All Those with Ears to Hear,” with its blues-soaked solo from Person; “The Blessing”) and more angular explorations (“Creation Celebration,” with a jumbled cadence that recalls Monk; “Song of Praise”). There are these uplifting ruminations (“And Then There Was Light,” “The Blessing”) and sophisticated Gil Evans-ian swingers (“Soothes the Soul”), too.
Fellow saxist/flautist Patience Higgins is featured on the latter, as well as “Never Far from Grace,” which unfolds with a similarly majestic stoicism. “Back to Center,” meanwhile, rumbles out with a muscular groove, before settling into a contemplative moment that provides this expansive platform for turns by pianist Adam Klipple, reedman Sly Scott and then Person. “Joy Complete,” with its bursts of rhythm and trickling vibes from Bryan Carrott, certainly lives up to its name. “Gratitude” features perhaps Person’s most riveting solo, as he works in the abstract with a painterly gusto.
Finally, there is “Faith Forward,” which starts as another showcase for Person, but then quickly becomes a group effort as Higgins, Scott, Craig Bailey, Israe Butler, Curtis Hasselbring and Scott Robinson take turns across a grippingly intense, yet unwaveringly joy-filled hook. Just when a segment or solo weaves dangerously close toward erupting into free jazz, Person grabs the wheel, steering back toward a vibrant, expansive groove.
That delicate balance illustrates, in miniature, the broader successes found throughout Thoughts on God, a well-conceived concept record that challenges us to examine ourselves on a spiritual level — even while it endlessly intrigues musically, as well.