Andrew Rathbun Quartet: Numbers & Letters

Saxophonist Andrew Rathbun and his compatriots tap into powerful emotions without succumbing to them. Rathbun remains resolutely in control (and coherent) at even the fastest tempos, and his balladry resonates with hard-won peace as well as pathos. His interplay with drummer Bill Stewart offers an unforced evocation of the classic John Coltrane/Elvin Jones dialogues, but Stewart, pianist Phil Markowitz and bassist Jay Anderson can also lay down a rock-solid foundation. (Co-producer Taylor Haskins also plays trumpet on two tracks.) Markowitz’s solos, meanwhile, up the rhythmic complexity even further, pushing things forward as he adds unexpected fillips; his blend of gentility and improvisational aggression sometimes recalls Andrew Hill.

“Bad Call,” the opening track, feels darker and more ominous than most of the other offerings, but in many ways it sets the tone. After a lurking bass/piano intro, Rathbun and pianist Phil Markowitz skitter in with boppish flurries laid over an ascending chord pattern, tempering the urgency with a joyful sense of exploration and discovery. Markowitz nonetheless cuts deep, interspersing his runs with jagged-edged splays; Rathbun, for all the richness of his tone, sounds equally driven as he unfurls quick-fingered curlicues, breaking into occasional Trane-like squawks to intensify the mood even more.

“Playpen,” in contrast, lives up to its name while avoiding preciousness. Rathbun’s lines dance and glide, reflecting both childlike wonder and well-honed artistry. “Tears and Fears” finds Rathbun on soprano saxophone, exploring a sparse sonic landscape with fearless resolve. On “Etude,” the set’s closer, he summons a sardonic, bassoon-like playfulness in the lower register before intensifying his tone and flying into a few neo-free squeals-blending passion, freedom-seeking and control.

David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.