Colley's debut features great musicianship and solid compositions, but it flows a bit unevenly. Joining the leader and bassist are Jeff Hirshfield on drums, David Binney on alto sax, Donny McCaslin and Chris Potter on tenor saxes, and Kenny Werner on piano. A significant portion of the album finds Werner laying out, making way for the involved three-horn arrangements that propel Colley's harmonically open compositions. When Werner does appear -- only on the opener "Catalyst," the sublimely melodic "Ethel," and the luxuriant 3/4 exposition "In My Never Mind" -- he really makes it count. But then he disappears. It almost seems as though Colley began making one album, changed gears, and wound up with quite another. By the time he gets to the dissonant horn chorale "Americana" and McCaslin's heady "Prometheus Calling," he's gone way more "outside," leaving behind the colorful, impressionistic worlds conjured by Werner's piano.
While the transition seems a bit jarring, there's still much to recommend Portable Universe. Colley's strengths as a composer come through loud and clear on his brief bass sketch "Voice of Thought," the intricate lines and swinging tempo of "Swimming in Exile," the slow, stalking groove of "The Lean" (co-written by Colley and David Binney), the cooking funk of "Gradual Impulse," and the mournful, vaguely country-western finale "Five-Two."