In the 21st century "official" jazz polls list the cello in the "miscellaneous" category, despite the fact that the instrument has been used in jazz since 1917 when Henry Graves played a fine solo on W.C. Handy's hit "Snaky Blues." The modern jazz era that began in the '50s found cellist Fred Katz as an integral member of Chico Hamilton's experimental chamber jazz quintet before going out on his own. Ron Carter played the instrument in lieu of his bass on Eric Dolphy's classic Out There in 1961. In 1970, France's Saravah label introduced listeners to the psych-jazz improv of the Baroque Jazz Trio. Throughout the rest of the decade, Diedre Murray and Abdul Wadud brought the instrument into free and avant-jazz settings, while Hank Roberts and Ernst Reijseger pushed boundaries even further during the '80s. The '90s and 21st century have given us inventive players ranging from Erik Frieldlander and Tom Abbs to Fred Lonberg-Holm and Jacob Szekely. Add Queens, New York-based cellist/composer Tomeka Reid to the list as an innovator. She builds on the tradition by covering a wide swathe of ground on Old New, the second album by her all-star quartet comprised of guitarist Mary Halvorson (who won a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2019), drummer Tomas Fujiwara, and bassist Jason Roebke.
Old New exists at the crossroads of swinging post-bop, modal jazz, and structured dialogic improvisation. Reid's compositions are often anchored in extrapolated melodies and harmonies that descend in a more or less straight line from Thelonious Monk but still give her bandmates room to move. After the kinetic bass and drumkit intro to the opening title track, Reid and Halvorson offer breezy lines juxtaposed against a flatted head. Both players launch into solos simultaneously; thanks to the rhythm section, the piece never loses its pulse and opens wide enough to embrace them both. Roebke's strident basslines pop and walk atop Fujiwara's rim shots, and tom-toms introduce "Wabash Blues" with its knotty, Monk-esque vamp at the front end before Reid begins a low-register solo journey. The band swings like mad behind her as Halvorson comes in with deep blue chord voicings before undertaking her own solo sojourn. "Niki's Bop" was penned for flutist/composer Nicole Mitchell, Reid's mentor. It's a groover with fingerpopping twinned lines from electric guitar and cello. Fujiwara drops breaks and skittering fills in his snare and hi-hat beat. "Sadie" is lithe, breezy, and hummable, with Reid delivering a deft pizzicato solo. There are some extremely free moments, too, as on "Edelin," where tonalities explore one another across shifting dynamics. "Peripatetic" is also quite outside, but the rumbling bass and hyperkinetically strummed guitars add a near-hard rock feel to its body. Closer "RN" is a psych-jazz ballad with rich rhythmic atmospherics and canny interplay between Halvorson's fingerpicking and reverb effects and Reid's sweeping pastoral arco display. Old New is a deeply satisfying listen, and a groundbreaking recording that displays a unique integration of post-bop and modern free jazz. This ensemble's communication is so comfortable that humor, warmth, and compelling harmonic and rhythmic ideas are rendered effortlessly.