Veteran pianist and composer Renee Rosnes delivers conceptual heft, suspenseful compositions and mesmerizing performances on her first album for the Smoke Sessions label. Evolutionary science, the theories of Charles Darwin and the work of Canadian technology specialist Dino Rosati inform the bulk of the disc, which is largely occupied by the seven-part “The Galapagos Suite.” Impressively, Rosnes realizes these lofty conceits with a surprisingly small ensemble, a quintet.
The group exhibits keen spatial awareness and harmonic ingenuity to create large-scale evocations. Rosnes is surrounded by deft musicians-saxophonist and flutist Steve Wilson, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Bill Stewart-with whom she’s forged deep rapports throughout much of her three-decade-plus career.
The disc opens with “The KT Boundary,” from “The Galapagos Suite.” After an inquisitive melody stated by the piano, vibraphone and flute, a stirring rhythmic motif takes hold before Stewart delivers a thunderous drum solo, followed by Wilson’s spiraling soprano saxophone passages and a driving melody that betrays the influence of Rosnes’ early years with Wayne Shorter. You can trace Shorter’s influence elsewhere on “The Galapagos Suite,” particularly the bewitching lyricism of “So Simple a Beginning,” the capricious contrapuntal melodicism inside “Lucy From Afar” and the shadowy intrigue lurking through “Written in the Rocks.” And as episodic and intricate as Rosnes’ compositions are, their complexity doesn’t hinder the vitality of any of the improvisations, as evidenced by the playful repartee she engages in with Nelson during “Lucy From Afar,” her impassioned solo on the gorgeous “Deep in the Blue (Tiktaalik)” and Wilson’s piquant asides on “Cambrian Explosion.”
For an encore, Rosnes concludes with two additional originals that are as vivacious as the “The Galapagos Suite.” The strutting midtempo “From Here to a Star” takes its chord-progression cues and theme from Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean,” while the prancing “Goodbye Mumbai” offers an elusive homage to Rosnes’ Indian roots. Rosnes’ balance of intelligence, beauty and strength on Written in the Rocks should gain her wider recognition.