Workmanlike jazz drummer Adam Nussbaum’s 40-year career includes stints with high-profile reedmen (Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman) and guitarists (John Scofield, John Abercrombie), but the drummer didn’t release his solo debut until 2018. The Lead Belly Project was Nussbaum’s salute to a surprising influence: the Louisiana folk, blues, and roots-music artist born Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949) and renowned for his songwriting, vocals, and 12-string guitar playing. Its follow-up, Lead Belly Reimagined, features the same bass-free quartet lineup, with tenor saxophonist Ohad Talmor and twin guitarists Steve Cardenas and Nate Radley. Though not as unexpected as Nussbaum’s first album, it’s still unorthodox.
A master of subtlety and nuance, Nussbaum injects the element of surprise into the chestnuts he grew up listening to. His drum intro on the opening “Relax Your Mind” leads to a playful ensemble performance befitting a live-in-the-studio recording, in that the listener hears the room (Talmor’s home studio, Seeds, in Brooklyn) as much as the musicians. On the energetic “Laura,” Cardenas and Radley create a tapestry of chiming chords to cushion the saxophonist’s breaks; on “Princess Elizabeth,” the leader switches between brushes and sticks to accentuate his bandmates’ ethereal accompaniment. Even the familiar tune of this collection’s best-known track, “Rock Island Line,” stays mostly cloaked, only peeking out intermittently.
The disc’s second half alternates between reverence and whimsy. The guitarists create light and shade throughout the dramatic “When I Was a Cowboy,” while Talmor’s breathy melody guides the atmospheric “If It Wasn’t for Dicky,” on which Nussbaum glides between brushes and mallets. In between is “Shorty George,” showcasing Ledbetter’s New Orleans influences through Nussbaum’s second-line snare drum and rim-riding prowess. “Governor Pat Neff” ends the disc, with the quartet demonstrating that it doesn’t take itself too seriously; an improvised, downshifted ending culminates in uproarious laughter.