Porter Records is quickly establishing a reputation as a label at the forefront of avant-jazz exploration, illustrated by such recent recordings by Henry Grimes & Rashied Ali and Odean Pope, as well as archival releases by Byard Lancaster and Ted Daniel. Digging up Philadelphian vibraphonist Khan Jamal’s 2002 album Cool (originally released on Jambrio) does nothing to diminish that reputation.
Though not as known as Bobby Hutcherson or Lionel Hampton, since the early ’70s Jamal has proven one of the more adventurous composers on vibraphones, and the seven pieces on Cool successfully display his diversity and melodic inventiveness. Limiting his ensemble to Warren Oree on bass, John Rodgers on cello and longtime stalwart Dwight James on percussion, Jamal still manages to cover an extraordinary amount of ground without venturing into blatant abstraction. “Professor B.L.” (an homage to Lancaster) opens the album in good humor, the vibe-and-cello unison theme recalling the work of cartoon composer Carl Stalling. The impressionistic, vaguely Eastern “A Dansk Morn” dampens the mood considerably before “Rhythm Thang” ratchets up the intensity with hard-driving swing.
Innocence continues the Eastern theme, residing somewhere between Palestine and Persia. Rodgers’ cello is the highlight here, swooping melodramatically throughout the piece while James opts for texture with subtle cymbal washes. Jamal’s vibes blaze quite a path throughout, sharp and metallic on the angular, post-boppish compositions, warm and chime-like in mellower moments. That Jamal never allows his sidemen to stretch out and take these compositions into uncharted territory results in a bit of predictability, though of the most enjoyable kind.