Monday, May 21, 2007

Jazz in the Grotto

Jazz in the Grotto
By the Fred Hess Band
Alison Records

Among jazz cities, Denver does not get the props for its regional scene that a Chicago or a Philadelphia gets. However, Denver has a number of excellent jazz musicians and a growing number of venues, making it an up-and-coming jazz town. The Denver-based Fred Hess Band represented on behalf of the Mile-High City at this year’s IAJE conference, and now their latest CD, Jazz in the Grotto is available today.

Hess is a flexible tenor player who can take things inside or outside. His compositions have a certain angular quality that brings to mind some of Andrew Hill’s work. However, his piano-less group leads to a greater sense of open space.

The opener, “Simple Steps” illustrates the elasticity of the group, starting as an up-tempo flag-waver, but shifting into more explorative territory as Hess and multi-reed player John Gunther take adventurous solos on tenor and alto respectively, while the rhythm of bassist Ken Filiano and non-Denverite ringer drummer Matt Wilson propel the tune along nicely.

The title track takes its inspiration from the give and take of conversation, given a distinctive accent by Gunther’s flute and Ron Miles’ eloquent trumpet. Hess varies the atmosphere nicely throughout Grotto, next offering an old school tenor workout for himself and Gunther on “Hold On.”

Matt Wilson’s energetic percussion and occasional sound effects are particularly effective on “The Clefs—Final Chapter?” This might be the final installment of the misadventures Hess’s musical family (say it isn’t so), but their influence is still felt even in their absence from this chapter.

Grotto concludes with a richly textured Coltrane tribute, “Ninth House.” Beginning in a somber mood with Filiano’s bowed bass, before segueing into the melody of “All Blues.” It evolves into a sprightlier tune, with a sparkling solo from Miles (Ron). It’s a fascinating composition, shifting in mood, but always faithful to its modal inspiration.

Fred Hess and group are excellent ambassadors of Denver’s jazz scene. Grotto makes their case persuasively with fine group interplay and some meaty compositions.