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Sweet Shadow-- Pete Mills

The Canadian Pete Mills has long resided in Columbus, OH, where the polished and arresting saxophonist leads a local group, is a featured soloist with trumpeter Byron Stripling's Columbus Jazz Orchestra, and teaches at nearby Denison University. For his fourth CD, Mills fronts a quintet that includes drummer Matt Wilson and guitarist Pete McCann, both back for the third time, as well as Mills' preferred pianist in Columbus, Erik Augis, and Wilson's band mate in his own group Arts & Crafts, the bassist Martin Wind. The program is a winner, consisting of nine distinguished Mills originals, two free-form tenor and drums duets, judiciously chosen tunes by Columbus native son Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Ellington / Strayhorn, plus an unlikely one that was made famous by a certain Hollywood sex symbol.

Mills' "Shiner" is based on "My Shining Hour," but also contains a motif that hints at Monk's "Evidence." His tenor solo is meaty in both sound and content, and Augis and McCann follow with sparkling, flowing lines, eating up the inviting changes. The tandem of Wind and Wilson is in lockstep, with the bassist's buoyant pulse especially enhancing. "Summer," named for Mills' favorite season and his niece and nephew's dog, has an alluring and calming theme that inspires bountiful solos from Augis and Mills, with Wind and Wilson again excelling in their individual yet aligned streams of support. McCann, who is currently on tour with saxophonist Grace Kelly, darts nimbly on the out chorus after the leader's warm reprise. "The Snagel" pays tribute to a bagel, cream cheese, and brown sugar favorite at the Denison University coffeehouse, and its insinuating, stalking melody draws in the listener. Wilson's relentless ongoing commentary lifts McCann's tunefully inflected musings, while Mills' deliberately paced but gradually intensifying improv is also assisted by the guitarist's provocatively distorted harmonies. The interspersed "Duo 1" and "Duo 2" are brief but engaging free-spirited duets between Mills and Wilson, each featuring rumbling, echoing, or beseeching tenor and pointedly responsive percussion, in sum reminiscent of Sam Rivers and Barry Altschul.

The tranquil opening to "New School" moves on to an attractive theme that generates surging, emphatic, and bluesy solos from Mills, McCann (with some Wes Montgomery style chords), and a modal-centric Augis, with a finale consisting of a lucidly conversant Wind and Wilson. Mills launches his glowing ballad "Sweet Shadow" with heartfelt expressiveness above his cohorts' sensitive cushion, and Wind's succeeding solo is a gem of form and substance. Mills' tasteful expansion is replete with well-delineated runs, its effectiveness heightened by Augis' pitch perfect comping, and the saxophonist's out chorus only solidifies the significance of this standout title track. For Kirk's "Serenade to a Cuckoo," Wilson's martial style drumming works well with Mills' reading of the slippery theme, and his persistent invention prods Mills statement to compelling heights. Wilson's brilliance is generously shared with Wind as well during their unabashedly lyrical interlude for this trio outing. The tricky, winding head to "Close to Never" is deftly handled by Mills, and his solo percolates with surprising twists and turns, and a variety of perfectly placed tonal inflections. McCann's possessed exploration comes on like a high energy, heated Mike Stern. All the while, Wilson's diverse rhythmic textures have a seemingly separate momentum all their own while somehow still fitting the action like a glove.

Ellington and Strayhorn's "The Star Crossed Lovers" seems to be deservedly getting more attention of late, and McCann's pliant acoustic guitar frames Mills' exquisite rendering quite beautifully. Mills' gliding, eloquent solo is played over a light Latin beat, as is McCann's stylishly refined effort. Mills is featured on the tune "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" on the Columbus Jazz Orchestra's last album, Come Together, and here he makes this ditty, ever associated with Marilyn Monroe from the 1953 film Gentleman Prefer Blondes, all his own. Wind's sterling arco solo precedes Mills' nimble, vibrant pronouncement, Augis' dancing, warmly articulated improv, and the tenor's impeccable out chorus. The swaying theme in 3 of "Blues for Mel" sets the stage for probing , soulful solos from Augis, Mills (including spirited interaction with Wilson), and McCann. "Elora Dolce" is an uplifting ballad dedicated to the newborn daughter of a friend of Mills', and his tenor displays both grace and genuine emotion, to which Augis concurs in his follow-up solo. With "Momentum," Mills revisits the title tune of his first CD, and this theme has the durable, well-honed, seeming familiarity of a jazz classic. Mills' discourse sizzles with propulsive originality and technical aplomb. Augis unleashes scintillating single-note lines amidst robust chords, and Wilson has the last captivating say of this stellar recording prior to the recap.

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Scott Albin