While the focus of this excellent New York quartet may be its edgy improvisations, the real star of Soft Shell, the third album by Andy Laster's Hydra, is the leader's compositional smarts. With tight contrapuntal arrangements that maximize the colors of the pianoless group's concise palette, alto saxophonist Laster-a founding member of the collective New and Used-meticulously structures the album's 11 wide-ranging freebopish pieces, employing frequent shifts in tempo, tone and attack to generate new stimuli for his fearsome soloists. Laster consistently finds potent ideas to propel each performance, like the schizoid two-section head of "Here I'll Stay/Go," which sets up a series of muscular, finely sculpted, floor-rumbling solos by drummer Tom Rainey, or the way "No. 16" tightens and relaxes with abrupt tempo changes and brief, alternating sections of rigidly arranged and loosely blown figures by Laster and trumpeter-cornetist Herb Robertson, only releasing the tension at the end of the tune with a wide-open coda.
While the frontline instrumentation loosely suggests plenty of harmonically advanced alto-trumpet pairings, from Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry to John Zorn and Dave Douglas, ultimately any such comparisons are superficial; Laster's cerebral and restrained playing is countered by Robertson's fat-toned extroversion, and the tension in those extremes is something that's all their own. It helps that Rainey and bassist Drew Gress have worked with each other so much; together their ability to accelerate and decelerate and drop strong, sudden accents without every seeming heavy-handed only enhances Laster's eventful writing.