On his first offering in three years, Kenny Garrett delivers the album that has been promised since his very auspicious debut Introducing Kenny Garrett back in 1984. On Beyond the Wall, the saxophonist and composer has continued his deep exploration of modal jazz. The album is dedicated to McCoy Tyner, the king and progenitor of modal pianists, and it sounds as if Garrett observed that tutelage well, though the music is unmistakably his own. The core band on the set features drummer Brian Blade, bassist Robert Hurst, and Mulgrew Miller on piano. Pharoah Sanders and Bobby Hutcherson appear on all but two of these nine cuts (Sanders appears on these, the pair on five). The beautiful introductory "Calling" that opens the set features Garrett and Sanders playing long, droning, Eastern-mode lines, threatening to explode at each moment as Miller takes a couple of pages of Tyner's book and hovers over both the front line and the rhythm section. On the title cut, Garrett's longstanding love affair with hard bop comes popping in the front door as Miller's solo goes deep into sharp arpeggios, playing in an augmented mode à la Freddie Redd, while never losing his own sense of elegance as the front-line players take him on in the head. Garrett's solo carries within it some of the circular techniques he learned from Trane's records, but keeps its bop angles sharp and tough.
And Sanders? Well, he's Pharoah, baby; what do y'all think he's gonna do? He answers tough and true, going for the one taking his cues from Miller and Hurst and playing up and around them full-force; he proves effortlessly that those few critics who claim he's lost it as an improviser are simply batshit. The interplay between Hutcherson and Miller is particularly tender and poignant on "Qing Wen," with its Eastern/Latin, melodic/rhythmic fusion. The melody and harmony between the two saxophonists is simply gorgeous. Vocalist Nedelka Echols and percussionist Rogerio Boccato help out on this one. It's circular, with the rhythm always at the center, everything points back to it, including the lyric. The sampling of Tibetan monks chanting the "Ornament for Clear Realization" would sound hokey on a lot of records, but the way Miller builds from the Eastern mode of the monks ushers in this cut with the same lineup. Garrett's alto simply rings as Sanders plays under in a more guttural -- but no less clear -- utterance. The six-strong vocal chorus on "Kiss to the Skies" melds seamlessly with Miller and Hutcherson, as Miller spins his lines out adding another singing voice (the chorus also appears on "Gwoka"). The final track, "May Peace Be Upon Them," is down to the basic quartet playing a mid-tempo ballad with skittering drum work from Blade playing all around the time, but never through it. Once again, modalism is the frame on which the melody is hung, and Hurst is the player who keeps it all focused on the beat returning no matter where Garrett goes in his flight. His playing is actually transcendent here, full of emotion and heart as it climbs around Miller's piano, leaving room for Blade to shift and shimmer on the edges. In the final moments, as Garrett bleats and shouts and chants with his horn, the intense melodic nature of his best improvising bring the blues home to visit from Africa and extends them to the protean, mystical East. This is Garrett's strongest moment in an already enduring career; it's fully realized compositionally, and in terms of its arrangements and its playing, it's virtually flawless without sacrificing emotion or creative intent or aesthetic vision. Simply put, it's his masterpiece.