Ali Jackson sports a broad, happy grin in the cover photo of this, his fifth release as a leader, and why not? The drummer is in the company of a constantly rotating cast of notable improvisers — from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to saxophonists Ted Nash and JD Allen — and gets to strut through a stylistically diverse set of 11 hand-picked favorites. There is a relaxed, good-natured vibe to Amalgamations that makes it instantly appealing. It’s obvious that Jackson and his 12 invited guests had more than a little fun making it.
“Variety” is the byword here. Every take features a different lineup of talent — ensembles that range from a duo to a quintet — and fresh perspectives on a wide range of material. Behind the leader’s brisk brush work and Carlos Henriquez’s walking bass, Ray Noble’s “Cherokee” gets an up-tempo treatment, with Marsalis delivering a refreshingly unexpected out-of-the-box take on this venerable swing-era classic. Another trio approach is successfully applied to the traditional spiritual “Just A Closer Walk With Thee,” with Jackson’s assertive backbeat framing Shedrick Mitchell’s saucy R&B-grounded organ solo. Pianist Eldar Djangirov crafts an elegant prelude on Johnny Mercer’s “I Love You,” setting the mood for a lush, to-the-point tenor-sax statement by JD Allen. Versatile trombonist Vincent Gardner, present on four tracks, adds yet another commanding and distinctive voice to the session.
The peppy opener, “Ali Got Rhythm,” which features Jackson’s longtime trio mates Aaron Goldberg on piano and Omer Avital on bass, radiates the air of unforced spontaneity that courses throughout the entire session. The rhythmically playful “Cachita,” a beloved Latin standard penned by Puerto Rico’s Rafael Hernández Marin, further underscores the date’s nonchalant attitude. That attitude, coupled with an absence of intellectual pretense, ensures that Amalgamations remains fresh and rewarding throughout. — Mark Holston