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Herlin Riley: New Direction

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There’s a subtle but pointed message implied in the title, as it relates to most of the music on this disc: Contrary to what some revivalists and progressives might insist, music can explore new directions without self-consciously proclaiming either its iconoclasm or its purity. Discovering new beauty and truth is a triumph of the spirit, not an ideological manifesto.

Herlin Riley is a New Orleans native, and the streetsy, Latin-tinged rhythms of that city’s musical heritage wind through this set. “Connection to Congo Square,” on which Riley and guest conguero Pedrito Martinez interweave with joyful abandon, propelling a melody line that roils with postbop fury, exemplifies this ancient-to-the-future continuum. But then so does “Harlem Shuffle,” which evokes “Night Train” updated with soul-jazz swagger. There, Godwin Louis’ alto saxophone solo reaches back to Johnny Hodge’s swing-era grace, and trumpeter Bruce Harris combines a classicist’s precision with modernist exultation and freedom. “Hiccup Smooth” plays on the paradox of its title with juxtaposed rhythms/time signatures; Louis negotiates the shapeshifting rhythmic terrain with confidence.

Although he’s the session leader, Riley is mostly content to set the groove, adding coloration and texture and goading his bandmates-Louis, pianist Emmet Cohen, Harris, bassist Russell Hall, Martinez, guest guitarist Mark Whitfield-with an unforced but relentless will. The major exception is “Herlin’s Hurdle,” written by Cohen, on which Riley allows himself a tightly wound yet explosively unfettered solo. The ballad “Shake Off the Dust” may sound conventional, even prosaic at first listen, but in fact could serve as this set’s manifesto: By revisiting vintage conceits and celebrating their vivacity, we can transform them into vehicles for fresh exploration.

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