This year's Dennis Gonzalez group goes by the moniker "Band of Sorcerers," and may be a little lighter on AACM/avant-jazz name-power, but it can't stop Hymn for the Perfect Heart of a Pearl from being a really strong disc. The rhythm section strongly backs Carlos Ward's tart opening alto solo to the first movement of the six-part title suite. Bassist Paul Rogers is very busy, but it's a good busy that largely avoids the too-frenetic (even when he's strumming behind Tim Green's stately tenor sax) and his strong solo provides a nice re-entry to the melody colored by spare horn commentaries. Rogers' busy-ness should be a problem on "Astonishing Emptiness," but it doesn't get in the way of the deep spirit mojo at work, with the lovely three-horn harmonies built around Green's simple vibrato spine, and drummer Louis Moholo brushes and rattles around like he does to excellent effect most of the time. "Hymn for Louis Moholo" has a decided South African tinge -- hardly surprising since Gonzalez has explored that feel before, the drummer hails from there and Ward is in the midst of a lengthy tenure as Abdullah Ibrahim's chief horn soloist. It's a 180 degree emotion switch to celebration, with a tart Ward solo kicking things off as Rogers locks down into the buoyant anchor riff, and Green gleefully takes off from foundation. It ends with the horns going off on some playful round action that reminds you of the distance from South African jazz marabi to mbqanga -- or from Ibrahim to Mahlathini if you prefer -- ain't that far. "Peculiar Stillness at Noon" phase-shifts the emotions again with its arco bass and muted harmonies drifting into abstraction behind beacon of clarity solos by Green and Gonzalez as the rhythm section takes it outside and back to peace. But what are the two tracks featuring Canadian pianist Paul Plimley doing here? He's a great musician, but neither the collective improvisation "Angels of the Bop Apocalypse," (great title) with Gonzalez going into very Miles-mode (as he often does here), or Plimley's original "Parachute One," with its studied, extended left-hand ostinato melody line, fit the program the quintet has been putting down.
They're certainly no bridge to "Hymn for Lionel Batiste-De Lawd's Train," when the quintet comes roaring back in on a pretty serious train groove with a jaunty, bopping head. It turns on to the outside tracks pretty quick, but works around to an almost koto-like pastoral resolution in Rogers' solo before Gonzalez' train whistle brings the train back roaring around the bend. Maybe Gonzalez just got greedy (or too generous) by putting the Plimley tracks on -- they're both really good but just belong in a different context. Hymn for the Perfect Heart of a Pearl is one of the best discs the Dallas trumpeter has released during a very fertile period for him. Don't let the absence of better-known musician names make you overlook it -- Green and Rogers remain unfamiliar to many, but both impress the listener as players to watch out for.