Bassist John Hébert reshapes and reimagines the standard jazz quintet on this album of four originals and two Mingus covers recorded in concert back in 2013. His all-star band of vivid personalities — cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Fred Hersch and drummer Ches Smith — may recall classic Blue Note ensembles, but don’t expect a head-solos-head routine from them.
Hébert originals like “Constrictor” and “The Blank-Faced Man” shuffle the group into different configurations, the tempos break down and rebuild at odd moments, and lyrical moments turn dissonant unexpectedly. Hébert’s arrangements of Mingus’ “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” and “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” are affectionate tips of the hat to a pioneer of the small ensemble trickery that this band perpetuates in its own style.
All of this would sound labored if the band wasn’t having such a good time and wasn’t so at ease with the music’s demands. Their interactions are so tight that distinctions between soloist and accompanist blur, composing and improvising blend seamlessly, and there’s an infectious sense of fun throughout. Bynum’s virtuoso mute work on “Constrictor” sets the album’s tone of serious playfulness with boisterous whoops and growls. On “Love What?” Hersch’s solo hovers restlessly in the air with ambiguous grace, a string of questions left unanswered. The leader’s opening unaccompanied solo, on “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love,” features dancing lines and deep-down riffs punctuated by strummed chords. With his sharp lines and piquant tone, saxophonist Berne varies the quirky rhythms of Hébert’s puckish “Frivolocity,” providing an upbeat ending to a delightfully creative album. — Ed Hazell