Riddle of the Sphinx
J Curve Records
It becomes increasingly difficult to pull off albums like saxophonist Mark Gross' Riddle of the Sphinx, a tone poem to Egypt, and assert any level of singularity, especially when a host of artists like Pharoah Sanders and Randy Weston have built discographies on various homages to Africa. So, since originality is tossed to the side, emotional poignancy and musical execution are the barometers for this album's persuasiveness.
Indeed, Gross' passionate wails and bold, sinewy tone draw you in immediately, as does his alluring, rhythmically hypnotic compositions, like "Valley of the Dry Bones" and "Moses in Egypt." And with the stellar ensemble of agile drummer Brian Blade, bassist Darryl Hall, pianist Mulgrew Miller, vibraphonist Joe Locke, oud player John LaBarbara and percussionist Khalil Kwame Bell laying infectious, transportive grooves, it's hard to deny this album's allure.
The group approaches classics like Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's evocative ballad "Isfahan" and Wayne Shorter's intriguing "Black Nile" with the same edgy intensity as they do on Gross' compositions or Miller's jubilant "Eastern Joy Dance." Every one plays at an exemplary level, but Riddle of the Sphinx just doesn't resonant with the same revelatory awe as its predecessors, like Weston's African Cookbook. Nevertheless, as long as there's Africa, there will always be a steady stream of albums such as this one.