Few would begrudge trumpeter Malachi Thompson, a long time AACM guy and a veteran of the Chicago scene, his turn at the Ken Burns pinata, and Thompson gets his whacks in on Talking Horns. His essay, disguised as liner notes, champions, in particular, the Burns-neglected upper Mississippi jazz byway, its past significance and current vitality. Thompson goes one better than most Burns critics, though, when he invites BAG hornmen Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett to join Thompson's Chicagoland outfit for the musical retort that is Talking Horns. That St. Louis/Chicago jazz axis represents.
Talking Horns isn't really a recording of manifesto-fueled excitement or much of a departure for the trumpeter, however. Thompson's outfit reinvestigates familiar territory-robust hard-bop edged with squeally outbursts-with moderation and restraint. On the mostly vamp or groove-based tunes, the rhythm section ticks off measures without any real sense of urgency. Even free-blown passages come across as a little tame. Thompson himself plays with a big, brassy sound but turns in able if not particularly memorable solos. The two hornmen, good guests both, mostly follow Thompson's restrained lead-mostly: players like Lake and Bluiett can't go for long without kicking up some dirt.
Still, the rich, dark "Woody's Dream" rises above the workmanlike, as does the obstreperous "Fred Hopkins." Only the throwaway title track, a solo feature for Thompson on overdubbed percussion, trumpet and voice, could be considered less than satisfying.