It’s clear from his latest recorded offering Bridges that the pianist and composer David Ake has a lot to say musically, but this being only his third record over a period of fifteen years, he hasn’t had much time to say it. That’s because Ake is also a scholar, author and member of the jazz ensemble EEA with Peter Epstein and Larry Engstrom. He’s made real good use of the limited time he’s had as a leader, though.
Ake amassed a sextet that’s about as impressive as they come: joining Ake is Epstein on alto sax, Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Ravi Coltrane on tenor sax, Scott Colley on standup bass and Mark Ferber on drums. Alessi, Coltrane and Colley go way back with Ake, who performed with all three while studying at Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts) in the mid 80s.
Collectively, they pack a lot of power, but it’s more impressive that Ake utilizes that power judiciously. It’s a sextet that leaves a lithe footprint, running the brass on all cylinders only at selected times for better impact (as on the brash “Year In Review”). With exception of the Art Tatum-styled solo piano piece “Waterfront,” Ake himself is self effacing, getting more mileage out of making the gold plated parts of his band work with polished, imaginative arrangements. He also takes on the role of the instigating avant-gardist, pushing the band most of the way toward out-jazz on numbers such as on the otherwise old-fashioned bebop delight “We Do?” and that brassy “Year In Review.”
But more often than not, Ake makes the other guys the stars, and none more so than Alessi and Ferber. The trumpeter’s sublime articulations are a highlight on “Sonemads,” and he soon finds himself in an improvising summit with Colley and Ferber. Alessi takes command of Ake’s sophisticated ostinato “Story Table,” and Ferber ably navigates the impossible rhythmic pattern. Alessi is sassy on “Year In Review” and stately on “Grande Colonial.” Ferber, meanwhile, masterfully manages the in-song mood changes, such as the bebop/out-jazz/bebop sequence called for on “We Do?” and percolates like Elvin on “Dodge.” Ake’s EEA partner Epstein has a real, passionate flair on the alto sax, and he puts it on display for “Story Table” and “We Do?”, where he spars buoyantly with Coltrane. And this Coltrane guy, he isn’t so bad, either.
The performances are grand all over Bridges because Ake knows the strengths of every player he’s got at his disposal and lets them do their thing within his well-conceived compositions, resulting in performances that are as unpredictable as it is thoughtful. Connecting all these moods and styles as skillfully as Ake and his sextet does make this an album with the right title.