Mark Gross is not a composer and hadn’t headlined an album for many years before Blackside. But the saxophonist does possess ample and esteemed experience in both big bands and small ensembles, and was thus able to assemble a top-notch band for this project. He is also creatively capable in myriad styles, ranging from bop through funk, calypso, R&B and Brazilian pop. All these circumstances made choosing the right material problematically open-ended, but Gross and producer/label owner John Lee resolved the issue by selecting songs they like and believe to be underexposed.
The result is a fascinating collection with a checkerboard sensibility. Tunes associated with Randy and Michael Brecker are prominent in the mix, but none are from the classic Brecker Brothers discs of the mid-’70s. Instead, Gross goes to the group’s final two records in the early ’90s for the brawny funk of “On the Backside” and then “Evocations” (co-written by Michael Brecker and Chris Botti), the latter boasting a creamy arrangement for a chorus of horns. He dips into Randy Brecker’s obscure 1969 disc, Score, for Hal Galper’s “Name Game” (a showcase for trumpeter Freddie Hendrix) and Brecker’s own “Bangalore,” which Gross galvanizes with a bounce and angularity akin to John Coltrane via Michael Brecker. And he reprises the groove-oriented “Straphangin’,” the title tune from a 1980 Brecker Brothers record. All good stuff, but even on the lesser-known material, it is hard to top the Brecker Brothers at their own game.
Ironically, pianist Cyrus Chestnut trumps all the Brecker covers with “Cherry Picker,” which opens like Ramsey Lewis sitting in with the Crusaders and then goes for some radio-friendly funky bop, with Gross growling on alto. Chestnut beautifully supports Gross’ voluptuous horn on “Sabe Você,” one of two pre-Tropicália Brazilian pop songs on Blackside. Another left-field delight is “Volare,” a musical piece of provolone that the superb band (bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Greg Hutchinson round out the core quintet with Gross, Chestnut and Hendrix) dresses up for Broadway and then sidles into a sunny bop-swing swagger. The closer is Stevie Wonder’s “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” played straight and seductively.