The opener, Kenny Barron’s “Smoke Screen,” sets the tone: Dancing at the crossroads where the spirits of hard bop, soul jazz, and funk intermingle, it’s nonetheless compromised by a curious feeling of restraint. “Cool” used to mean externally unflappable but with an underlying acuity born of awareness; too often here, it seems to denote little more than leavened emotions.
Trumpeter Eddie Henderson is a masterful technician, and at his best he summons a true exploratory fervor. Sometimes, though, as on “Fran Dance,” it can sound as if Miles’ ghost has wrestled him to a draw. Altoist Donald Harrison, meanwhile, channels “sheets-of-sound”-era Coltrane with winning verisimilitude, but Trane was exploring uncharted territory; today, a player sounding like that is revisiting the familiar.
At times, things kick into a tougher groove. The quintet’s take on “Naima,” with surging propulsion from drummer Mike Clark, bassist Essiet Essiet, and pianist Barron, recasts Coltrane’s classic as a quest for rather than a meditation on (or an anguished attempt to reclaim) a state of grace. “The Sand Castle Head Hunter” returns us to that hard bop/soul-jazz/funk nexus, but greasier this time, more celebratory and stoked with fire—Harrison doesn’t just ride the Trane, he lays down new track ahead of himself and then hangs on for dear life as he negotiates it. On “Toys,” a characteristically irony-toughened Herbie Hancock line, Barron weighs in with soul chording and fleet runs; Henderson’s leaps, arcs, and flurries are lithe and full-bodied. Harrison sounds a tad more relaxed here, but his astringent-toned thrust remains forceful. The territory may still be familiar, but now the explorers sound intent on discovering previously unearthed life forms along the way.