David Weiss has headed up a lot of quality ensembles, like The Cookers and The New Jazz Composers Octet, but my favorite one of his is Point of Departure. That’s because this composer, bandleader and trumpet maestro explores this brief but highly exciting time in jazz when John Coltrane along with the disciples of the New Thing fired up other progressive musicians with the notion that jazz needn’t necessarily be boxed within swing or bop parameters. A flurry of recordings appeared in the immediate aftermath of Coltrane’s 1967 death — many composed by Miles Davis sidemen — where the genre was exploding in different directions at once. It was the vanguard of jazz after modern hard bop had appeared to run its course and before rock-jazz fusion had taken over as the most popular form of the idiom.
Using bright, open-minded up-and-coming musicians much as Miles had done throughout his career, Weiss through Point of Departure very effectively uses this slice of jazz’s past to suggest a way forward, and the long overdue follow-up to the albums that came out of 2008 studio (Venture Inward) and live (Snuck In) sessions are finally upon us. Wake Up Call (February 17, 2017 from Ropeadope Records) continues exploring Weiss’ very intriguing history lesson and keeps the idea fresh by both widening the scope and bringing new blood on board.
The ‘old’ Point of Departure band included drummer Jamire Williams, tenor saxman JD Allen, guitarist Nir Felder and bassist Matt Clohesy. All of these members’ profiles have been raised in the following years –especially Allen’s — validating Weiss’ eye for talent. Now, only Clohesy is held over as Kush Abadey takes over on drums, Myron Walden assumes Allen’s spot on tenor sax and Felder is replaced by not one but two guitarists, Ben Eunson and Travis Reuter. To ease the transition, Allen and Felder stick around for three cuts, called the ‘Unfinished Business’ section of this album.
Adding a second electric guitar is the main distinguishing element of Wake Up Call compared to the 2008 recordings. Those bank of guitars mated to Abadey’s restless drums and Clohesy’s steadying bass lines draws the band further in a rock direction while Weiss and his saxophone sidekick (Walden or Allen) engage them in a tug o’ war to keep the music grounded in a jazz foundation. The sparks occur when these two opposing forces collide.
The other source for the excitement comes from the song selections; there are no originals but there aren’t anything near standards, either. Weiss’ curiosity and wide ranging knowledge about deep cuts in both extreme modern jazz and early fusion has produced a stellar set of tunes, and I came away with a deeper appreciation of the ones I was already familiar with after hearing what Point of Departure did with them.
That unconventional repertoire begins with “Sanctuary,” not Wayne Shorter’s lone contribution to Bitches Brew but rather the John McLaughlin “Sanctuary” that first appeared on his Mahavishnu Orchestra classic LP, Birds Of Fire. Weiss pairs with Walden on the ominous, drawn-out theme as Abadey is responsible for the fire down below. In spirit it’s very much in line with Mahavishnu’s reading and though that song places a little later than Point of Departure reference era, McLaughlin at that period was extending ideas first introduced in the 60s by Trane and others.
The inclusion of “Sonhos Esquecidos” also breaks from — or expands on, depending on your point of view — the mold by covering a 1983 song from one of the first homegrown experimental jazz groups from Brazil, Grupo Um (Group One). I did mention that Weiss has a curiosity and wide-ranging knowledge about deep cuts in both extreme modern jazz and early fusion, right?
“Two Faced,” which is in fact a Shorter tune, returns the band back to that late 60s template, a 1968 Davis recording that didn’t even see the light of day until 1976. But like the Mahavishnu tune, it’s spacious, and Weiss’ tremendous chops on display during an extensive solo makes the connection back to earlier eras before the band revisits Shorter’s enigmatic head and Allen leaves a penetrating solo of his own. That the rhythm section is rocking assertively behind the two almost insinuates the title of the song.
Weiss has used this band to shine a light on a little-noticed, forward-minded Detroit group of the late 60s, Kenny Cox And The Contemporary Jazz Quintet, and Wake Up Call contains three more of their songs. “Multidirection” from the Kenny Cox album of the same name receives muscle from the Eunson/Felder guitar duo providing the underlying riffs and slowed down a bit to a “Shhh/Peaceful” groove often interrupted by eruptions from Abadey. “Noh Word,” another Charles Moore composition, lso channels what the Miles gang was doing at the same time, this one more peaceful and lofty but no less nuanced; Felder lends fine solos to both performances. Cox himself wrote “Sojourn,” which perfectly fits the bill for modern jazz that stands at the crossroads, and Point of Departure takes full advantage of its sub-genre ambiguity, putting it squarely at a no-man’s land between modern jazz, fusion and R&B. Weiss’ trumpet work in unambiguously sharp and forceful, though, and Reuter’s turn on guitar points in the 21st century direction of Kurt Rosenwinkel.
Joe Henderson’s “Gazelle” is a tense, odd-metered pattern competing with a shorter, swing motif. Abadey ramps up the intensity and the flip to and from the ‘swing’ part isn’t as jarring as when Henderson played it. Walden holds nothing back on this track.
The pretty melody on Tony Williams’ elusive ballad “Pee Wee” is handled alternately by Weiss and Walden and Reuter and Eunson (as opposed to Wayne Shorter alone on the original 1967 Miles recording), and by the time Eunson shreds you realize it’s been turned nearly into a rock song. Williams was in a much different place musically when he recorded his “Mystic Knights of the Sea” in 1972 as the leader of the seminal fusion band Lifetime, but Point of Departure finds the linearity from his 60’s composition style as a Davis sideman during the latter’s acoustic period to leader of his own electric rock band. Eunson’s guitar here evokes Williams’ one-time Lifetime sideman, Allan Holdsworth.
By bringing to light both these obscure corners of jazz as well as lively new practitioners of the music, David Weiss’ Wake Up Call gives us much hope that there remains much potential in this arena yet to be realized. He also leaves us with this takeaway: music in transition is the most enthralling music of all.
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