Only 16 when he started playing trio gigs with the likes of Larry Willis and Eddie Gomez, drummer Al Foster has spent six decades as a not-so-secret special groove ingredient enlivening performances and sessions by a long list of heavy hitters. For Inspirations & Dedications, a rare outing as a leader, Foster deploys his working quintet on two pieces by mentors, and 11 originals honoring family members and a friend.
Tunes by Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, both of whom benefited from Foster’s artful rhythmic ministrations, serve as bookends on the recording. Herbie’s “Cantaloupe Island” opens with low-slung funk, a showcase for Dayna Stephens’ reedy, rangy tenor attack before trumpeter Jeremy Pelt’s rapid-fire volleys urge Foster to kick the proceedings up several notches and then stretch the rhythm a bit behind pianist Adam Birnbaum’s solo. And Miles’ funkified, playful “Jean-Pierre” is an exercise in creative groove digging, featuring invigorating interplay between the horn players and the rhythm section.
In between comes more personal material, including “Douglas,” its bouncy melody over stop-start rhythms a tribute to bassist and longtime Foster sideman Doug Weiss. There’s much joie de vivre to be found in the melodies and improvisations throughout, including on “Ooh, What You Do to Me,” with its tightly clustered tenor-trumpet harmonies, devoted to the leader’s wife Bonnie Rose, and the minor-to-major 6/8 “Simone’s Dance,” for one of his four daughters. His other three daughters are toasted with the sweet “Samba de Michelle,” the pretty ballad “Kierra,” and the breezy “Song for Monique,” with Stephens on bari.
There are somber moments, too: “Brandyn,” written in the late ’90s for Foster’s son, here is a piano-and-drums prelude to “Our Son,” bluer than blue, led by muted trumpet, written after Brandyn’s death at age 30, in January 2017. Life, love, loss—all are reflected in these emotionally resonant compositions.
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