Optimism surges through “Flipside,” the opening track on Jaleel Shaw’s second recording as a leader. Altoist Shaw and guitarist Lage Lund unfurl the complex extended line in unison, so tightly bound that they sound like a single instrument; then, as both melody and rhythm suspend, dissolve and re-congeal behind him, Shaw ascends into a speedy, probing solo. Drummer Johnathan Blake both impels him and lays down rich textures to enhance his ideas; pianist Robert Glasper’s variegated, two-handed attack conveys the jubilance of a call-and-response chorus as well as the determination of a single questing soul. Throughout, the players throw down daunting challenges to themselves and one another, and then joyously embark on the task of meeting and overcoming them.
“The Struggle,” more darkly hued, is nonetheless shot through with a similar affirmation. Joe Martin’s brooding bass intro sets the context for an intimate conversation among Glasper, Shaw and Lund, a multifaceted polyphony that eventually solidifies into a unison statement before loosening up again into an expansive aural landscape for a characteristically acerbic yet upward-arcing solo statement from Shaw. The mood alternates between introspection and ebullience—invoking both the song’s title and the title of the CD, it conveys the message that optimism is the result of meeting, and prevailing over, risk and uncertainty.
Elsewhere, though, that bracing spirit threatens to dissolve into feel-good clichés and neo-new age obscurantism. Offerings such as “Almost,” “Optilude” and “Flight” drift rather than soar. The title tune, despite drummer Blake’s gaily skipping rhythmic impetus, sounds directionless and uncertain; Shaw struggles to find a theme in the meandering melody line from which to forge new directions and ideas, and the timbral and dynamic limitations of Glasper’s Fender Rhodes impair his emotional range. “If I’m Lucky” employs various electronic embellishments—a programmed percussion track, a backward-looped guitar line—but never explores their sonic or aesthetic implications. It sounds like noodling, not experimentation.
In both its successes and its disappointments, this disc exemplifies the spirit implied by its title: optimism can empower us to make the difficult seem easy, but it’s neither honored nor achieved by taking the easy way out.