Like most aspects of American commerce, jazz marketing has become fixated on branding. Every album needs a backstory, a peg beyond the music. Case in point: bassist Harish Raghavan’s pleasurable second album, In Tense. The press materials tell us that it was inspired by the pandemic, connecting it to a majority of its six songs. But here in the latter part of 2022, we’re fatigued to the point of apathy on that theme.
More relevant, and resonant, is that Raghavan wrote the tracks especially for this band. The lone holdover from Raghavan’s first record, Joel Ross on vibraphone and marimbas, creates a percussive brotherhood with drummer Eric Harland. Both players possess a distinctive touch and rhythmic approach to rapid-fire beats and phrases, and Raghavan uses them in crucial lead and support situations. They thrive in the sophisticated crosscurrents of “Circus Music” and cast just the right amount of shade on the early buildup of “In Tense” (later stalking the perimeter of the melody while ratcheting up the tempo). And Harland’s roving, cantering solo near the end of “Prayer” is like a visit from an old friend.
Raghavan enabled his ace sidemen without cheating himself. His enormous tone is up front in the mix of the lead song, “AMA,” and his aggressive, serpentine solo rifles through its deliberate pace, giving the piece ballast and identity. The title track likewise finds the bass setting the tone. Guitarist Charles Altura and Morgan Guerin on tenor, bass clarinet, and “electric wine instrument” also have their moments, especially via a dizzying exchange on “Prayer.”
Some albums are better when the program is terse, and the 33 minutes of In Tense feel like satisfying efficiency rather than short shrift. Raghavan knows what he wants to say and who he wants to help him say it.