The latest in Carla Bley's ever-changing array of ensemble configurations, the 4X4 group features Bley on piano, Larry Goldings on organ, Steve Swallow on bass, and Victor Lewis on drums. Add to this core unit a four-horn section: Lew Soloff on trumpet, Wolfgang Puschnig on alto, Andy Sheppard on tenor, and Gary Valente on trombone.
This batch of compositions is informed by Bley's distinctive brand of tongue-in-cheek playfulness, especially on the Latin-rooted "Baseball," which is peppered with the kinds of organ motifs one hears at the ballpark. Also in this semi-comic vein, "Sidewinders in Paradise," a seemingly random juxtaposition of "Stranger in Paradise" and Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder," chugs along with a retro-funk groove perfectly colored by Goldings's organ. The album ends in a darker mood with "Utviklingssang" (Norwegian for "Development Song.") Two extended pieces form the real backbone of the album, however. "Blues in Twelve Bars/Blues in Twelve Other Bars" is a funky, modulating blues with gospel undertones. Goldings shines on this one, and Lew Soloff captures the mood with a plunger solo. "Les Trois Lagons," the most ambitious track, takes its inspiration from three cut-outs in a book by Henri Matisse. Divided into three movements, the piece begins with a round of bebop soloing, then morphs into a ballad, and concludes with an unusual whole-tone stride section that recalls both Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong.
While the entire eight-piece band is consistently a pleasure, some of the album's most appealing moments occur during several Bley/Swallow duet passages. The two have been performing and recording as a duo for many years, so in a certain sense the whole band seems to revolve around them.