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When Caleb Wheeler Curtis’ alto saxophone doesn’t make an entrance until three minutes into the opening title tune, it’s clear that he’s a musician who plays by his own rules. He butts in with a couple of rude phrases amid pianist Orrin Evans’ solo. The two then tangle for another three minutes, turning the temperature up and down and teasing with fragments of unison melody, as drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Eric Revis concoct a busy pulse.
Heatmap has an elusive quality, as if the musicians want to stay one step ahead of the listener and avoid anything obvious. It’s a high-wire act not easily achieved, but the quartet succeeds admirably. Feels range from structured, with distinct soloists, to full-on group improvisation. Rhythms flow from pulse to groove to free.
Heatmap is the third album by Curtis, 36, out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. He mines his horn for myriad avenues of expression, frequently zagging when you expect him to zig. His tone roams all over the map: torqued and astringent on the helter-skelter “Splinters,” fragile and melancholy on “Trees for the Forest,” taut and serrated on the Ornette-ish “Surrounding.” In certain instances, his phrasing is unhurried and full of space; in others, it comes in quick stabs and darts, and elsewhere it’s so frenetic that it borders on unhinged — as on “Trembling.”
Evans’ piano work is more jagged and dissonant than when he sits in the leader’s chair; clearly, he enjoys the boundary-pushing environment. Cleaver masterfully delivers whatever is called for, but is at his best when he turns it up to volcanic.
Heatmap sags on three of its slow pieces — “Limestone,” “Trees for the Forest” and “Whisperchant” — which fail to deliver a coherent statement and therefore border on inert. The music is most effective when the band artfully pokes and probes until it reaches full boil. Heatmap is best when served hot. — Eric Snider