Gregory Tardy: The Strongest Love

On this, his first CD after a three-year sabbatical from performing, Gregory Tardy offers up a set of devotional pieces along with one secular standard, Billy Strayhorn’s “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing.” Unlike the music of, say, latter-day Coltrane, these selections serve primarily as paeans to, rather than aural exemplifications of, the striving for grace. As listeners, we don’t inhabit the quest; we acknowledge and praise it. Thus, for instance, pianist Joel Weiskopf’s “The Strongest Love,” written in homage to Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, invokes little of the torment, paradox or mystery of the Crucifixion; instead, the feeling is one of almost idyllic serenity, a mood both set and amplified by Tardy’s tenor playing, which sounds bathed in seraphic light. Tardy’s own “Cure” likewise eschews struggle and proceeds directly to victory: His ascents are muscular, his occasionally astringent chordal juxtapositions and quick-ripple flurries add welcome textural depth, but even at its most declamatory his playing bends joyfully heavenward.

“How Great Thou Art” is prayer enlivened by cherubic playfulness. After a solemn recitation of the theme, the quartet accelerates the gospel standard into lithe swing, in which various time signatures are juxtaposed against one another and Tardy dances gaily above them all. The Strayhorn tune, as well, features some deft rhythmic counterpoint, adding an appropriate spark of meditative playfulness to a piece that’s resonant with a profound, almost reverently drawn sense of moment and place. “No Shame in His Name,” another Tardy composition, is built on a complex melody line that the saxophonist recasts with a powerful meld of focus and freedom. He sounds as if he’s physically wresting new possibilities and beauty from an earthbound, rock-encrusted framework.

It’s moments such as these that invoke the combination of faith-infused yearning and hard-won triumph that is at the heart of the best spiritually inspired improvisational music.