Jeremy Pelt’s new quintet is different. You can see it. The 36-year-old trumpeter is known for his stylish way with business attire, usually taking the bandstand in a crisp suit and fedora. His prior bandmates-certainly the acclaimed acoustic quintet he recently disbanded-also tended to dress with sartorial elegance.
By contrast, Pelt’s electric quintet, which occupies the bandstand at Washington, D.C.’s Bohemian Caverns on this night in late February, has a more casual vibe. All of the musicians wear jeans, Pelt complementing his with a sweater vest and pinstriped gray sport jacket. Add in his black thick-rimmed glasses and he looks less strutting high-roller and more relaxed professor.
Then David Bryant launches “Mystique”-a tune from Pelt’s 2001 debut that he’s reimagined for his new album, Water and Earth (HighNote)-with a gospel-charged Fender Rhodes riff. It yields to a waltz groove, and before long Dana Hawkins is threatening to break through the drum skins with his funk-rock beats. Burniss Travis, on electric bass, thumps out a complicated line that’s more indebted to Larry Graham than to Ray Brown. When Pelt comes in, it’s with lyrical legato phrasing that at first sounds effortless, but his hard push quickly becomes evident. The trumpet gets louder, rounder, punchier; it growls, then shrieks. The fire is reflected in the visible labor of Pelt’s playing: squinting eyes, taut embouchure, beads of sweat on his forehead.
Pelt’s look of concentration remains as Roxy Coss takes over on soprano sax. He cocks his head to the left, where she stands, occasionally nodding or grunting his assent. She’s intent on her horn, and can’t see the pleased expressions he occasionally shoots her.
The band may look laidback, but their music is serious business. It’s the message they send from the bandstand, and that Pelt himself articulates with his 21-word liner notes to Water and Earth. “This music isn’t about a change in direction,” he writes, “as much as it’s about strengthening my commitment to my art at present.”
Pelt’s assertion is bold, and a little cryptic. Water and Earth‘s dense fusion is nothing if not a change in direction from Soul, the patient, empathic ballads-and-blues record Pelt released in 2012. But Pelt doesn’t deny that he’s shifted trajectory; he’s more concerned with the idea that a through-line exists in all of his work. “It’s really about the focus,” he says. “People get so caught up in the fact that the music, texturally, sounds different, that they end up consumed in it being a ‘change in direction.’ And I’ve always had this project, even longer than the quintet.” Water and Earth is, in fact, Pelt’s third electric jazz album.
“What I mean by ‘strengthening my commitment to my art at present,'” he adds, “is that I don’t necessarily want to be bouncing between, ‘OK, this is going to be my acoustic project, and now this is my electric project over here. And then I’ll do this project and that project.’ If you spread yourself that thin, you can’t focus all your energy. And I want to focus my energy on this band, which is strengthening my commitment.”
A guide to the trumpet master’s fusion outings
Jeremy Pelt considers this septet session the first document of his jazz fusion enterprise. By all surface appearances, though, it’s mostly an acoustic postbop record. Keyboardist Frank LoCrasto spends five of the album’s 10 tracks on traditional piano, and in some of the instances where he brandishes a Fender Rhodes (“Seek”), it doesn’t change the basic feel of the tune. But pieces like “Eye of the Beholder” and “Scorpio” move into much spacier territory, with LoCrasto and guitarist Mike Moreno also taking liberties with some of the other tunes’ textures. A small step, but a telling one.
Shock Value: Live at Smoke
Wired, the name Pelt gives his band on this album, speaks volumes. Shock Value is far bolder than its predecessor in embracing the possibilities of fusion, from Dana Hawkins’ funky drum figures (“PythagorUs”) to Pelt’s use of wah and distortion effects on his trumpet. LoCrasto’s many keyboards, especially his Rhodes and organ, mix with Al Street’s razor-wire guitar to make beds both liquid (“Beyon”) and abrasive (“Circular”). And Street’s single-note lines, along with a subtle vocal by Becca Stevens, turn “Cause” into a flat-out rock song.
Water and Earth
Water and Earth softens the live-album starkness of Shock Value‘s sound with more effects and a studio mix (in the process going even deeper into fusion techniques). The result is a more textured, atmospheric record, filled with echo, watery soundscapes and processed, distorted trumpet. Roxy Coss’ tenor saxophone adds moodiness (“Meditations on a Conversation We Had”) and her soprano lends exploratory inclinations (“Mystique”) to the proceedings, while “Boom Bishop” is a smorgasbord of high-octane jazz-rock chops. LoCrasto, here the second keyboardist behind Dave Bryant, adds an exotic tang with his wonderfully weird Prophet synth.