One look at the magnificent lineup and the oddball instrumentation and you know this has to be special: Paul Smoker and Roy Campbell on trumpets, Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, and Andy Laster on clarinet and bari sax, with leader Harris Eisenstadt constituting the entire rhythm section on drums. With the enormous talent represented here, expectations run high, and, thankfully, they are by-and-large fulfilled. Eisenstadt's compositions are vehicles for improvisation, but along the way he engages in some unusual strategies. The drummer incorporates African themes in his compositions, a result of his extensive studies of the music of Ghana and the Brikama region of Gambia, West Africa. In addition to the African-infused pieces, "Go" is a free improvisation, "Jumpin In" is based on "pitch materials" from Eric Dolphy, and "Ahimsa" is "part of an ongoing series of pieces in homage to Mahatma Gandhi." Inspired, Eisenstadt succeeds remarkably well from a musical perspective, and this has all the hallmarks of a well-paced set. There is diversity of style, including changes in dynamics and tempo, and the listener is consistently caught off-balance, rarely able to anticipate the next step. The solos are superb, although it is not always easy to determine which of the brass is playing when, especially when they are improvising together. As an added bonus, producer Robert Rusch has included second takes of a couple of the pieces, "Seruba" and "Jumpin In," which provide insights into the composing process, the results being very different for each take. Eisenstadt, commendably, subordinates his skills to the collective, acting as a catalyst here, a soloist there, always tasteful, and non-intrusive. It is sometimes difficult for the listener to determine when the composition starts and which parts are improvised, but there are clearly riffs that are inserted at varying points. The results are Ellingtonian in scope, with the quintet sounding larger than it is and the harmonies often enervating and inspiring. "Mwindo" is a good example, a perfect blend of composition and improvisation, Eisenstadt offering a somewhat traditional, though dynamic, jazz drum solo sandwiched between the horns engaging in some exciting written interplay. Considering how few jazz drummers are leaders, Eisenstadt breathes fresh air into the small ensemble, navigating a dangerous terrain of African rhythms infused with a surprisingly accessible free jazz aesthetic.
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