Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Moment with Fred Hess

Single Moment
By the Fred Hess Band
Alison Records

For the sake of a wider perspective, every jazz writer ought to familiarize themselves with another jazz scene outside of New York. Fortunately, I have been able to check out a number of gigs in Denver during periodic family visits—one of the bright spots for jazz in the big square states. Some of Denver’s leading players have earned national reputations, particularly tenor player Fred Hess and his frequent musical colleague, trumpeter Ron Miles, both of whom are well known outside of Colorado for their time in Ginger Baker’s group. They have also played in New York, including an appearance under Hess’s leadership at what sadly turned out to be the final IAJE Conference in the City. Hess has now slightly expanded his line-up with his latest release, Single Moment.

Returning from Hess’s previous outing, In the Grotto, are two of Denver’s busiest jazz artists, the aforementioned Miles and reedman John Gunther, heard on alto and flute, as well as the two “ringers” from New York, bassist Ken Filiano and drummer Matt Wilson. To shake things up a little, Hess added another Denver-based musician, Dale Bruning on guitar, who fits in rather seamlessly on a session of generally advanced hard-bop jazz.

Hess starts Moment with “Blues for Bonnie Belle,” an up-tempo blues with an edge, inspired the Hess family’s dog. Its combination of groove and inner fire has a similar vibe to some of the classic 1960’s Blue Note sessions. It is followed by Bruning’s jazz waltz, “Dancing with Daffodils,” featuring a brief but distinctive solo from the leader before the composer and rhythm section each take their turn.

While Hess is known for keeping one foot in the avant-garde and the other rooted in the straight ahead, Moment leans more to the latter. For instance, there is a starkly beautiful tenor and guitar duet rendition of “While My Lady Sleeps,” a Kaper & Kahn tune originally written for The Chocolate Soldier, an old MGM vehicle for Nelson Eddy. It is followed by Bruning’s infectious “Port O’Call,” a jazz calypso in the tradition of Sonny Rollins’s “St. Thomas.” The guitarist even takes an unaccompanied solo turn on “Spring is Here.”

For those familiar with Hess’s idiosyncratic musical family, the Clefs, your long national nightmare is over. They are indeed alive and kicking, despite Grotto’s rather ominous sounding “The Clefs—Final Chapter?” However, as the most dissonant track of the session, it sounds like the Clefs may not be safely out of the woods yet. Stay tuned.

At about twice the length of Hess’s other selections, the title cut is also the least structured, venturing the furthest out. A tribute to the late Michael Brecker, “Single Moment” ranges far and wide, providing ample solo space for the entire band, including an appropriately mournful statement from Miles.

Once again, Hess and his colleagues prove there is a lot of great jazz to be heard outside of New York. Moment happens to be a particularly rich, listener-friendly release from the inventive musician-composer, which should serve as a convincing introduction to Mile High jazz for the rest of the nation.