Featuring a quintet drawn from the University of Toledo’s Jazz Studies faculty (of which the headliner, saxophonist Gunnar Mossblad, is head), CrossCurrents won’t blunt criticisms that contemporary jazz is abstruse and too, well, academic. Its 11 original tunes are played expertly, with the empathic interplay of musicians who’ve worked together for a decade. Only a handful, though, are actually enjoyable.
That handful is superb. Mossblad has two successes: “Scooter,” an Ornette-like piece capped by the frontline trading eights with drummer Olman Piedra, and the traditionalist tenor ballad “Two as One.” The other writers each score once. “For Chick,” pianist Tim Whalen’s percussive homage to Chick Corea, memorably evokes its namesake; bassist Norman Damschroder’s “Slick Roads” is a soulful melody featuring a lush guitar improv by Jay Rinsen Weik. The guitarist’s “Waltz for Isabella” is best of all, a delicate romance with a top-notch soprano solo by Mossblad.
These pluses, though, only make the minuses more disappointing. The album opens with its two worst tracks—Whalen’s “Boom” and Mossblad’s “Contemplations”—both built on abrasive harmonies and self-consciously elaborate themes. Also overly elaborate are Weik’s “I Like It” and Whalen’s “Morningside Heights Mourning,” the latter especially egregious since the liners refer to it as “simple.” Mossblad’s “Little One” is a strong motif that’s stretched far too thin as a theme: It’s first set to an unwieldy 19/4 meter, then repeated 16 times.
CrossCurrents’ most unfortunate aspect is its academic origin, which feeds “jazz nerd” stereotypes. True in this case or not, Mossblad’s is a solid band that’s made a flawed document.