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It’s clear from the opening notes of vibraphonist-composer Jalen Baker’s This is Me, This is Us. that he was determined to deliver a debut album that transcended conventional post-bop.
The delicate chime of his vibes melds with a string quartet in a soft, lovely introduction to “So Help Me God.” Soon after, the band enters, the tempo picks up and a serpentine melody ensues, with strings swirling in cinematic flourishes. Solos weave in and out of the arrangement — which at one point comes to a complete halt — rather than being carved out and handed off. An impressive accomplishment, in its way.
Over the course of nine more tunes and at just under an hour, Baker and company perform a series of complex, meticulously arranged and expertly performed originals — plus a short and dreamy, solo-vibes version of Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” which closes the record.
While This is Me, This is Us. is an admirable effort by the Houston-based Baker, it falls short of establishing much in the way of emotional resonance. The tunes tend to be overstuffed with ideas and counterpoint, each new motif crowding out or covering up the last. This setting stunts the impact of the individual players, particularly Baker, who clearly has skill. Pianist Paul Cornish impresses with some knotty lines in a limited role. Trumpeter Giveton Gelin has a confidently brassy tone, but his solos fail to thrive amid such a cramped and busy aural palette.
This is studious, serious music made by young musicians with considerable academic credentials. Song titles such as “We Regret To Inform You,” “Obey/Disobey,” “Healing,” “Patience,” “Praise” and others show that Baker had lofty themes in mind. Then there’s “Don’t Shoot,” which hurtles along on a jittery groove and manages a vaguely nervous energy. But if this is protest music, where’s the rage? —Eric Snider