The Power Quintet: High Art

No new ground is broken here, but this set from trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, pianist Danny Grissett, vibraphonist Steve Nelson, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Bill Stewart-cast solidly in a straight-ahead postbop framework-is spiked with the pleasure that comes from music created by gifted improvisers at the height of their powers, just as the musicians themselves obviously derived both joy and inspiration from being in one another’s company.

Pelt delivers his trademark blend of satin tone and blues-toughened linear thrust over the tightly wound swing of his bandmates; Nelson negotiates complex patterns, alternately circular and quickened with scurrying leaps, angles and switchbacks, propulsive yet relaxed. Stewart’s drumming makes judicious use of space and silence as well as polyrhythmic dexterity, and Washington lays down a steadying landscape, breaking free at appropriate times to contribute lithe, sure-fingered solo statements.

On the ballad “But Beautiful,” Nelson’s dexterity and speed seem to enhance, rather than detract from, the contemplative mood; Grissett’s solo is structured primarily around chords that eventually break into a gently weaving single-note line, finally giving way to Washington’s resonant bass solo. Pelt evokes a stark romantic isolation, both creating and filling an otherwise uninhabited space. Things get a little more taut and adventurous on “Sage,” on which Nelson prances and quicksteps like a tap dancer and Grissett, echoing Nelson’s percussive dexterity, supports his own single-note explorations with wide-spectrum chordal blends. “Mr. Wiggleworm” is likewise challenging with its variegated rhythmic pattern and interweaving lines, as the instrumental voices alternate between unison and counterpoint. Pelt, in full Miles-ian mode, turns up the heat so gradually you almost don’t notice it until it’s at full boil, his tone opaque and rounded as always but infused with smoldering fire.

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David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.