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E.J. Strickland Quintet: The Undying Spirit

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There’s a tendency on drummer-led albums for the listener’s ear to focus on the drums no matter what they’re doing. E.J. Strickland turns that tendency into inevitability on his second album, The Undying Spirit. It opens with an unaccompanied virtuoso solo that continues past the minute mark, just one of two drum solos on the first tune (“Ride”). There are further drum solos (on nearly every track), but even Strickland’s comps are too complex and intriguing to turn away from.

Throw in his 10 sumptuous compositions and the incisive work of his quintet (tenor saxophonist/twin brother Marcus Strickland, alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, pianist Luis Perdomo, bassist Linda Oh) and The Undying Spirit‘s pleasures multiply. “For My Home Folks” has a slow, nostalgic melody; Shaw and Marcus Strickland play it sweet and light, but come his solo, Marcus’ tone coarsens, his pacing turns staccato. Instead of blunting the sentiment, though, his rawness sharpens it, makes it more direct and natural, a trick Shaw emulates in his bluesy contribution. (The alto saxophonist has a bravura turn of his own on “A Dance for Mojo’s Return.”) Oh similarly hits home with a guitar-like improvisation on the hope-fueled “Ballad for All Mankind.” Perdomo also solos, with curvaceous single-note lines, but his best efforts come on written parts like the foreboding ostinato of “Hindsight.”

It all comes back to the drummer, however. Whether in passionate, snare-heavy solos (“Hindsight”), funky pocket grooves (“A Dance for Mojo’s Return”), odd-accent lines that almost hide the one (“Transcendence”) or subtle percussive colors (“Midnight’s Clearing”), E.J.’s traps dominate the affair-and make for a hell of a romp.

Originally Published