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The Leaders: Spirits Alike

When the Leaders first emerged in the mid-1980s, the all-star sextet was hailed for its success in blending free-jazz inventiveness into a more mainstream framework. This new version of the band may not lean as far outside as the original (which included Arthur Blythe, Lester Bowie, Kirk Lightsey and Famoudou Don Moye), but it is no less worthy of the name. Returning members Chico Freeman and Cecil McBee wrote most of the disc’s material, sticking mainly to open-ended writing in a swinging postbop vibe. Freeman is solid on tenor sax, but his best points are scored on soprano: He slides sneakily through the shuffling title track and turns the late-night scene of “Lady Bugg” a deep shade of blue.

Newcomer Eddie Henderson takes on Bowie’s trumpet chair with confidence, quickly establishing himself as the band’s most appealing voice. He is sharp and quizzical on some numbers, daydreamy in others, always standing out in sharp relief. Bobby Watson is versatile on alto sax, turning in soulful breaks or surfing and soaring over the rhythm section’s complex interactions. A more prominent role for drummer Billy Hart would have been welcome, but his mark is everywhere as he splashes broad strokes across the background of each tune. McBee is thoughtful on bass and blends well with pianist Fred Harris’ bright statements, especially in the serious “Evolution.” The band’s rapport is evident throughout the set, in its tight ensemble work, in-the-pocket soloing and several well-executed improvisational outros.

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