Nearly two decades after slipping out of the golden handcuffs of the Tonight Show band, Detroit-born Robert Hurst has released what feels like one of his most ambitious recordings. Black Current Jam is an eclectic set of 10 original compositions built around Afrocentric themes and encompassing an eclectic range of jazz-rooted rhythms and textures, bolstered by a fresh arranging style and driven by the leader’s distinctive approach to the bass guitar and double bass.
His upright, adorned and unaccompanied, cues the disc’s start, laying down a slippery groove that sparks the urban-acoustic vibe of “Detroit Day.” That track references Hurst’s hometown and incorporates a melody doubled on vocals and Rafael Statin’s saxophone; it’s the first of several tracks deploying that device, with the help of, variously, singers Brendan Asante and Jillian Hurst, the bassist’s daughter. The leader shifts the perspective to a kind of pan-African view, with the percussion-and-vocals unity groove of “Two Beats and a Breath.” There, Faith C. Hall’s urgent spoken-word incantations connect the musical dots among disparate cultures and traditions.
The simmering “Bela Bunda” opens up for Hurst’s technically adroit solo on bass guitar, and the group handily slips into bossa rhythms on the mellow, aptly titled “Keepin’ It Rio.” Naturally, drummer Nate Winn and percussionist Pepe Espinosa are showcased at the start of the funk-edged “This Is Your Brain on Drums,” and Statin and Hurst play a unison head on “Morse Code and the Time.” Hurst employs some colorful bass-guitar chording figures at the start of closer “Happy Nappy,” its snaking, circling melody lines and interlocking rhythms leading into bracing workouts by Statin and pianist Ian Finkelstein. Throughout, Hurst’s bass playing shines, but it’s his compositional mettle that makes Black Current Jam stand out from the pack.