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Byron Morris and Unity: Y2K

Don’t be fooled by the somewhat dated title. Byron Morris and Unity play smart, arresting, 21st-century jazz. Like many other outstanding players who haven’t gotten much national attention, Washington, D.C.-based alto and soprano saxist and flutist Byron Morris is neither a lightweight nor a deservedly obscure figure. He’s a highly accomplished, very distinctive instrumentalist. Morris heads a group whose skills as an ensemble indicate they deserve a shot at recording for bigger labels with higher industry profiles. While Unity’s forte, based on this live date from Blues Alley in D.C., is hard bop, the band doesn’t just run through charts and then proceed to nondescript solos. Their sets are arresting, the exchanges steamy and the music has soul, heart and fire.

Pianist Hilton Ruiz, a nimble, frequently sizzling player, penned the dynamic opening cut, “Home Cookin’.” It’s one of three topflight tunes on the CD, with the others being an excellent, disc-concluding cover of Joe Henderson’s “Mamacita” and an insightful version of Freddie Hubbard’s “Crisis.” All these tunes are top showcases for the band, whose members include trumpeter Eddie Allen, trombonist Gerald Pennington, bassist Pepe Gonzalez, drummer Harold Summey and vocalist/percussionist Imani. The disc’s most musically challenging number is the almost 14-minute “Wheel Within a Wheel,” a Bobby Watson piece that extends and tests the band’s collective and individual prowess. The composition elicits rigorous solos, and the result is the set’s fullest, most complete performance.

It’s a shame that many people, yours truly included, haven’t heard more of Byron Morris and Unity’s music. The quality of Y2K is ample encouragement for many fans to remedy that situation.

Originally Published