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Michele Rosewoman & Quintessence: The In Side Out

The first six tracks here are an invocation of the Ring Shout, the traditional African ceremonial form of dance, song and worship in which a theme or set of themes is stated, responded to by the participants, and then repeated and improvised upon in a circular, iterative pattern until the ritual is complete.

The theme is driven by an urgent funk rhythm that stutters and quick-steps through a series of ensemble passages overlayed by solo punctuations from piano, trombone and sax. It alternates with a high-speed bebop-sounding line, likewise improvised upon and tossed around among Rosewoman and her bandmates. Rosewoman has a gift for explosive melody lines that shoot out sparklike in unexpected directions, and her keyboard improvisations are likewise multi-directional and propulsive. Tenor saxophonist Mark Shim lithely negotiates the inside/outside faultline; soprano saxophonist Miguel Zenon occasionally flirts with syrup, but the relentless complexity and sharply delineated contours of Rosewoman’s constructions mostly compel him to stick to the business of swinging hard and lean; and drummer Derrek Phillips and bassist Brad Jones boogity-shoe all over the place. Everything culminates in the nine-minutes-plus “Eshu Laroye,” named for the trickster god who often presided over the Ring Shout and featuring hand-drum percussion from Pedro Pablo Martinez as well as Africanist-styled vocals from Olu Femi Mitchell, Martinez and Rosewoman herself.

The remaining five offerings are less ambitious but mostly successful. Rosewoman’s piano work balances a Bill Evans-like neoclassicism with a propulsive attack and an adventurous harmonic imagination; her sharply imaged contours avoid both Evans’ preciousness and the harsh-for-harshness’ sake extremism that sometimes plagues Cecil Taylor wannabes. Guitarist Dave Fiuczynski’s solos spin gold filigrees from barbed wire and Shim’s and Zenon’s saxes and Josh Roseman’s trombone add a welcome, leathery thwack when the funk-lite rhythms and meandering melody lines threaten to become too ethereal-as they do toward the end. “The Fineness of” is an ill-advised attempt to tackle streetsy funk on its own terms, and neither Shim’s programmed rhythm track nor Rosewoman’s neo-soul purr can toughen “Life Is for Learning” enough to redeem the song’s pseudo-profound lyric sentiments.

Better to dance with the spirits of the ancestors, as this ensemble does so deftly on tracks one through six, than to slog through postmodern imitations.

Originally Published