A feeling of pent-up force pervades “A Great Cloud of Witnesses,” the opening track of saxophonist Gregory Tardy’s latest disc. Pianist Keith Brown, bassist Alexander Claffy, and drummer Willie Jones III summon a roiling, multi-textured sonic maelstrom that envelops but never overwhelms. Out in front, Tardy’s spirit-infused wail sounds as if it’s coming from a man both summoning those “witnesses” and standing among them.
That piece sets the tone for the album. Tardy, Brown, Claffy, and Jones, along with trumpeter Alex Norris (on two tracks), celebrate truth and beauty with an urgency that reflects the times we live in—times when truth and beauty, no less than freedom itself, are under attack. The music here, even at its most jubilant, invokes a bulwark of resistance against the forces that would threaten them. “I Swing Because I’m Happy” is appropriately celebratory, yet Tardy toughens it with aggressive off-time punctuations and rapid-fire abstractions. “Everything Happens to Me” has strong echoes of Dexter Gordon in Tardy’s phrasing, his sensual behind-the-beat caressing of the melody, and his probing exploration of the piece’s harmonic depths, as well as his final cadenza.
The melody of the title track seems to recall Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies; Tardy once again conveys sentiment without sentimentality. “Absolute Truth,” a postbop/hard-bop mélange, is easy-loping but undergirded with a powerful, swinging impetus. Norris bursts out with some “serious play,” erecting and then joyfully deconstructing patterns; Tardy begins his solo deep in the pocket of the groove, then scurries and flutters his wings on his way to freedom.
“Now, more than ever/All the family must be together,” Gil Scott-Heron reminded us in 1974, and that, in the end, is this set’s message. Each player fully manifests his own musical personality, yet the group’s unity is unerring—a guide, and a beacon of hope, in frightening and uncertain times.