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Bill McHenry Quintet : Sonic Pressure

Recorded in 2005 at New York’s Fat Cat Jazz Club, this is not your typical live-album-as-blowing-session. The crowd was small but attentive, judging from the smattering of respectful applause on the CD. The club, which seats several dozen, and the audience seem appropriate for tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry, whose approach to jazz is thoughtful, measured and introverted.

His quintet really meshes here. It’s not clear whether the album was recorded in one night or over the course of several, but everything gels. The disc begins with a mellow modal piece called “Night Owl” that is obviously influenced by Kind of Blue (then again, what isn’t?). McHenry’s sax is strong and confident, but it’s also restrained and relaxed. Coupled with Duane Eubanks’ bare, muted trumpet and the unhurried rhythm section of pianist Pete Rende, bassist Matt Penman and drummer Jeff Williams, the tune recalls the storied triumvirate of Miles, Coltrane and Bill Evans.

Not everything is so neat and tidy. On the 12-minute “The Hit,” discourse swells into a storm and then subsides. Voices emerge and recede. Williams’ drumming changes constantly, yet it feels well plotted, as though he had a road map in his mind. Another 12-minute piece, “Wru,” is the piece de résistance: a lurching start-stop melody, aggressive bass and percussion and an unconfined, unconstrained saxophone solo. Rende lays out until the seven-minute mark, and when he enters he picks out simple, spare lines. Penman plucks the same notes repeatedly and Williams grows more frenetic, and still Rende sticks to his dry, ascending lines. It makes for a stark, powerful contrast.

Roses, the Sunnyside disc, is lighter and airier yet less straightforward. McHenry returns to a quartet featuring three stellar sidemen: guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Reid Anderson and drummer Paul Motian. They play in a relaxed, fluid style that affords plenty of breathing room. Time is implied, not kept explicitly, but it’s kept under control. Monder keeps his energy largely in check but does manage to let loose a couple of times, most notably on “The City,” where the duel between him and McHenry sounds like a race car arguing with an air-raid siren. “The Lizard” begins with a lively four-way exchange of ideas, but when McHenry steps out, Monder seizes the opportunity and roughs things up, droning with fuzz tones until the saxophonist returns with contrasting lines and arpeggios.

Anderson, the least ham-fisted member of the trio the Bad Plus, plays with great sympathy throughout Roses, and Motian seems never to play the same phrase twice. Even when he plays two measures of “Keys of C” in a 4/4 rock beat, he’s just messing with us-he quickly turns to freer playing, where no patterns emerge.

Originally Published