Perhaps bass players so often make good leaders because they are accustomed to serving the music. Even monsters like Mingus, Dave Holland and Christian McBride have been more interested in calling attention to the ensemble than to themselves.
Ben Wolfe rarely occupies the foreground on his new album. If you didn’t look at the cover, you wouldn’t guess that The Whisperer is the bassist’s project. This ensemble sounds selfless and organic. Wolfe does imprint his personality, but from within.
One of the privileges of leading a band is doing it your way. Wolfe prefers clear, melodically concentrated music that unfailingly, gracefully, fervently swings. There is only one standard, “All the Things You Are,” slowed to a crawl, revealing unsuspected wistfulness. The other 11 tunes are Wolfe’s. Their velocities and intensities vary in a narrow range, but mellowness predominates.
Wolfe chose focused, hard-edged players for his quartet. The focus insures that the pensive atmosphere is continuous; the hard edges insure that the mellowness is never soft. Pianist Orrin Evans, saxophonist Stacy Dillard and drummer Donald Edwards are all capable of blowing the album apart. They never do, but awareness of this potential creates subtle suspense.
Pieces like “Hat in Hand,” “Love Is Near,” “Camelot’s Lean,” “Becoming Brothers” and “If Only” are rapt, smoldering ballads. On previous recordings (e.g., Frank Lacy’s Live at Smalls) Dillard has sometimes sounded overwrought. Here he plays with precision, mostly on soprano, brightly tracing and sharing Wolfe’s alluring melodies. Evans, who in recent sideman appearances (Steve Wilson’s Live in New York, Thomas Marriott’s Urban Folklore) has been a jagged accompanist, sounds refined.
Wolfe’s unified aesthetic does allow for occasional creative free passes, like Dillard’s trilling, spilling derivations from “Community” and Evans’ chiseled lyricism on “Chronos.” But in our noisy, restless jazz era, The Whisperer is its own quiet island, firmly centered on beauty.