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Continuum-- Richard Sussman Quintet

Pianist Richard Sussman made an auspicious debut with his 1978 Free Fall, a riveting post bop/progressive album featuring saxophonists Jerry Bergonzi and Larry Schneider, trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Mike Richmond, and drummer Jeff Williams. A follow-up by the group did ensue, but it came some 32 years later in 2010 with the release of Live at Sweet Rhythm. The music on that CD actually came from the group's reunion, minus Schneider, at the New York club in 2003. Now comes Continuum, both recorded and released in 2012, which is aptly titled since the quintet maintains its signature vitality and cohesiveness. This time Randy Brecker replaces Harrell, and guitarist Mike Stern guests on one track. Besides a 1980 trio date with Andy LaVerne and Bob Moses, these three sessions comprise Sussman's entire discography as a leader, although he has been active in supporting roles for various artists and bands both in and out of jazz, and also as a composer, arranger, and scorer for film and TV. He is currently a professor of jazz composition at the Manhattan School of Music, where he has taught since 1986.

Continuum is launched with "Spare Change," Sussman's tribute to Horace Silver. The flowing ensemble voicings and the funkiness of the theme vividly recall Silver. Bergonzi's tenor solo, with its characteristic overtones, is edgy post bop, while Brecker's trumpet solo is more sinuously straightforward. Sussman's piano improv combines soulfulness with modal elements. An hypnotic vamp by Sussman leads to the undulating theme of his "Meridian," which has a nicely contrasting bridge. The leader then plays a lyrical and satisfyingly creative synthesizer solo, accompanied by his own piano (presumably one of these parts is overdubbed). Brecker solos with his usual majestic grace and luxurious sound. Richmond has his own say as well, committed and unfettered, while Bergonzi's intense statement emerges only after the reprise, which helps set this Sussman arrangement apart from the ordinary.

The quartet treatment of "Alone Together," one of Sussman's "favorite standards," showcases the warmth of Brecker's flugelhorn. Sure pacing, rhythmic diversity, and variations in density of texture are the key qualities of Brecker's excellent improvisation. The pianist then probes the melody with hurtling momentum before Brecker returns to caress it. "The Wayfarer" is inspired by Stephen Crane's poem by that name, but is simply Sussman's solo piano intro to the following piece, "Crossroads." He wafts impressionistically through this ingratiating miniature étude. The urgent, insistent "Crossroads" contains more of Sussman's stirring, if more roiling, piano, but the impactive, uninhibited solos by Brecker and Bergonzi more than match him in forcefulness.

Sussman wrote "Mike's Blues" expressly for Mike Stern, and this bluesy line blends Stern's penetrating guitar with the leader's synth and the two horns. Stern's solo is a typical scorcher, jazz-rock at its polished best. Bergonzi issues a heated proclamation of his own before Sussman once again displays his inventiveness and rather unique flair on synthesizer. Fred Lacey's "Theme For Ernie" was recorded by John Coltrane for his Soultrane LP, and is presented here as a vehicle for Bergonzi. Sussman's gorgeous intro leads to the veteran tenor's moving rendition, which reveals how he has incorporated Trane's obvious influence into his own musical conception. Sussman's glistening, lucid solo precedes the rewarding reprise. (Bergonzi can be heard playing "Soultrane" on the Live at Sweet Rhythm CD.)

A piano trio performance of Sussman's "It's Never Too Late" places Richmond's bass out front sharing the ballad's introspective melody with the pianist, as well as the solo space. Both musicians, and drummer Williams, play with great sensitivity and depth of feeling on this selection dedicated to Sussman's wife Barbara. The CD's concluding title track, "Continuum," is also its most exploratory. The tense thematic counterpoint, pulsating piano ostinatos, and rhythmic fluctuations generate striving, powerful solos from Bergonzi, Brecker, Sussman, and Williams, still more proof that the reemergence of Sussman's essential group has been much too long in coming.

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Scott Albin