Mark Gross

Riddle of the Sphinx

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Heavily inspired by ancient Egyptian culture, alto/soprano saxophonist Gross has constructed a musical theme park for this recording, one evoking images of wind-whipped sands and desert caravans. The meat of the music is clearly Gross' literate and even-keeled sax playing, but much can be said about Joe Locke's shadings on vibes and (especially) marimba and the incredibly sensitive and commanding presence of the great pianist Mulgrew Miller. Bassist Darryl Hall, drummer Brian Blade, and percussionist Khalil Kwame Bell add their fair share as well, but the cherry on top is the oud playing of John LaBarbara, who contributes the perfect amount of spice to this Middle Eastern jazz gumbo. Gross wrote half of the CD's ten cuts. "Valley of the Dry Bones" starts with a Coltrane-like free-burning fire that eventually gives way to a camel-strut pace propelled by alto sax, oud, and marimba. "Moses in Egypt," a quietly urgent, modal 7/8, is an interesting concept, while the title cut is graced by Gross' soprano, Blade's brushed jungle beat, and Miller's cascading piano. "The Desert Sands of Cairo" is a sunny stroll, and the "The Red Sea" features Miller's lush piano and Gross' forward-march alto. The other half of the recording showcases well-known jazz pieces. On an alto-driven version of Wayne Shorter's classic "Black Nile," Blade works the tempo like a mad puppeteer. Cannonball Adderley's "Marabi," adorned here with soprano, oud, bells, and bowed bass, flows into a neat Caribbean groove. A rendition of Miller's "Eastern Joy Dance" starts much more patiently than the original, but the song's familiar alto/vibe melody is there through it all. Also included is Kenny Garrett's beautiful "Lullaby of Isfahan" (highlighted by Gross' soprano) and an alto/piano duet treatment of Billy Strayhorn's "Isfahan." As a concept album, this stands as a refreshing reminder of how the ethnic jazz combinations conceived by John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef, and Joe Harriott can be built upon in current-day jazz. Gross should be commended for making a go of this.

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