Russ Johnson's Save Big combines qualities not often found together. It is both challenging and instantly likable. The album delivers on the implicit promise of economy in its title by a clean, intelligent, uncluttered, no-nonsense approach to freebop.
The personnel are trumpeter Johnson, alto saxophonist John O'Gallagher, bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Mark Ferber. Given the concept and the trumpet-alto frontline in a pianoless quartet, Ornette Coleman comparisons are inevitable. The album's elastic, start-stop time and balls-to-the-wall two-horn jousting indeed recall Coleman and Don Cherry in full flight. But Johnson's band presents fewer jagged edges and more variety.
The opener, "Sagauche," was composed at 10,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies. Johnson and O'Gallagher state its expansive anthem in seamless unisons. Then they spin away from one another and simultaneously, passionately, contrapuntally solo. Then they segue back together for the fervent theme. Like Johnson, O'Gallagher is a player with crisp articulation and intriguing ideas.
"Figuratively Speaking" foregoes collective improvisation for extended, sweeping, impressive individual statements from the two horns and Driscoll. "Reveille," by Driscoll, is not a loud wake-up call but a slow luminous dawning. It shows that even players as hip as these are capable of sentiment. "Indonesian Folk Song" is a free array of disassociated colors and textures. The other five performances are equally diverse but sustain creative energy informed by discipline.