With Buzz, Ben Allison's Medicine Wheel returns from a brief recording hiatus. The band has changed: Trombonist Clark Gayton fills a low-register niche previously carved out by cellist Tomas Ulrich, and trumpeter Ron Horton is now absent from the lineup. The two reedists, Ted Nash and Michael Blake, remain in place, along with pianist Frank Kimbrough, who grows more impressive every year. Drummer Michael Sarin, who played on 2002's Peace Pipe, has gigged with Medicine Wheel regularly since the departure of Jeff Ballard, but Buzz marks his first recorded appearance with the group.
In another first, bassist Allison makes sparing use of Wurlitzer electric piano. It's simply a textural element, but it alters the music's complexion considerably. The brooding, vaguely electronic pulse of the opener, "Respiration," strongly recalls the opening of Radiohead's Kid A-that is, until Kimbrough lets loose over a churchy transitional groove. "Buzz," recorded without piano on Medicine Wheel's eponymous 1998 debut, receives a thorough reworking-less focused on timbre, far more explicit harmonically. "Green Al" has the infectious gait of a sexy cabaret song. Blake's 5/4 "Mauritania" features a growling solo by Gayton and subtle flute filigree from Nash. "R&B Fantasy," Allison's quirky genre tribute, begins in 7/4 but evens out in the second half, sounding like the Fifth Dimension on quaaludes.
Andrew Hill's "Erato" is the more successful of two nonoriginals. This obscurity, which clearly inspired Jason Moran's "Gangsterism on Canvas," finds Allison, Nash and Sarin in moments of exquisitely hushed dialogue. Allison's take on John Lennon's "Across the Universe" is fittingly ethereal, but not as convincing.
Buzz strikes me as Medicine Wheel's most restrained album to date. It could stand more of the left-of-center spark that animated the band's earlier work. But Allison's melodic gift and forward-thinking attitude as an orchestrater are still very much in evidence.