The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head-- David Bixler

For David Bixler's fifth CD as a leader, the alto saxophonist returns to the pure territory of hard bop and post bop, somewhat of a departure from his work in recent years with Arturo O'Farrill's Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra and Risa Negra sextet, and his collaboration with the pianist on The Auction Project, which explored Celtic music. O'Farrill's only contribution to The Nearest Exit is his informative and sometimes amusing notes, in which he describes Bixler's compositions as "the product of a brilliant mind" and "a beautiful and reflective antidote to fad oriented or doily covered jazz." This music has staying power that does not wear out its welcome, thanks to Bixler's distinctive tunes and fruitful arrangements, as well as their quality performances by musicians that the leader knows very well. Back from his previous CDs are trumpeter Scott Wendholt (spelled incorrectly in the CD's packaging as Wendholdt), guitarist John Hart, bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Andy Watson.

Okegwo's funky bass line and the perky chasings of Bixler and Wendholt on the theme and beyond of "Perfected Surfaces" do wonders for the ears. The altoist and trumpeter seem to read each other's thoughts and blend together mellifluously. The somber and reflective "Vanishing Point" finds Bixler and Wendholt in sinuous, stimulating dialogue, with Hart's delicate fills and Watson's more emphatic drum work complementary in different ways. Hart then steps forward for a ringing, thematic solo that he builds expertly. The reprise confirms the inherent grace of this Bixler tune. "Vida Blue" possesses a hard bop line that is delivered assuredly by Bixler and Wendholt. The trumpeter's solo darts and soars, and Hart percolates at a deceptively low flame with a "Hit the Road Jack" quote inserted midway. Bixler's improv rolls and tumbles, while Okegwo succinctly recaps what has come before. The four soloists then give the drummer some, in a zestful series of exchanges.

The theme of the lightly sailing, uplifting "Three Dog Years" is again shared by Bixler and Wendholt. Bixler's solo is conveyed with a crystalline tone and has a wealth of ideas, either brusque or elongated in development. Wendholt maneuvers with a variety of effects and emotional nuances, and Hart is all heartfelt, subtle understatement in his statement. Okegwo again has the last say, absorbing and moving, prior to the theme's revisit. Watson is commandingly to the point for the duration of this piece. The title tune, "The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head," has a multifaceted, intricately woven theme and a shifting rhythmic base, which elicits a churning Wendholt solo, followed by Hart in a relentlessly paced expression with flawlessly executed extended lines, buttressed by vamps from the horns. Bixler then cooks in his individualized lucid manner, never resorting to tired licks or flashy alto gimmickry. Okegwo's characteristic woody, reverberating sound is on display in his intro to Bixler's spiritual "Arise." The composer meshes lustrously with Wendholt for the melody, and the altoist's vibrato in his earnestly wailing solo gives it the sound quality of John Coltrane's soprano sax.

The jubilant theme of "Thinking Cap" provokes a sparkling, buoyantly surging Bixler solo that effectively repeats and examines a number of motifs. Wendholt takes an alternate route, emphasizing winding, drawn out passages. Hart's improv takes the middle ground, utilizing both concise and lengthy phrasings. The threesome then embark on a series of spirited trades with the provocative Watson. "The Darkness is My Closest Friend" was previously recorded by O'Farrill's Risa Negra. A cantering rhythm is established by Okegwo and Watson, over which Bixler and Wendholt play the enchanting, abstruse melody, interspersed with the altoist's thematic fills, several short incisive improvisations, and finally an expanded statement. Hart's solo adroitly investigates the melodic and harmonic contours prior to the two horns returning to resolve this unconventionally structured creation and arrangement. "Goat Check" also appeared on a Risa Negra CD, and here Hart's reverb ostinato and Watson's backbeat signal a more fusion-style outing, as the horns relate the soulful, swaggering theme. Bixler's infectiously gyrating solo is responded to by Wendholt's dancing, rhythmically vibrant turn. Hart's journey is perfectly formed and briskly produced, and the reprise concludes both a track and a CD of refreshingly diverse charms.

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Scott Albin