Trumpeter Rob Blakeslee leads his Oregon-based band through a series of labyrinthine excursions on Last Minute Gifts. Rooted in freer forms of early ’60s jazz, the pianoless quartet-trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, bassist Clyde Reed and drummer Dave Storrs-features abrupt tempo changes, shifting rhythms and corkscrew improvisations. By now we’re long accustomed to the unpredictable, and for the band’s chosen path the surprising turnabouts are attractive. If the program has a slight shortcoming, it’s a similarity in tonality and changeable format, not the melodies or performances. Two pieces, however, have Latin beats of sorts: the beginning and ending of “Huff Creek Road” and the bass vamp throughout “Advice from a Pufferfish.”
Sometimes a jazz band will perform sans piano simply because the bar or hall doesn’t own one, or for a New Orleans funeral procession the reason is obvious. The choice not to record with an available piano is a conscious one. Take Ornette Coleman’s 1960 quartet, Sonny Rollins at The Village Vanguard 1957, or John Zorn’s Masada of the 1990s all elected to free themselves from the constraints of those black & white keys. I’m telling you this because Rob Blakeslee’s quartet opts for openness and the freedom. Peace. Blakeslee and Rich Halley are regular contributors to the West Coast bands of Vinny Golia and recordings from his label 9Winds.
Trumpeter Rob Blakeslee leads a piano-less quartet filled with other regulars of the Nine Winds label on this CD, including its owner, Vinny Golia (who sticks to clarinet and bass clarinet), bassist Ken Filiano, and drummer Billy Mintz. The first of six Blakeslee originals, "Just off the Avenue," is dedicated to cornetist Bobby Bradford, who with clarinetist John Carter had a similar type of group in Los Angeles; Golia does a fine job of emulating Carter while still sounding like himself. "A Trusty Shellback" takes half of its nearly 18 minutes to get going, starting off as otherworldly sound explorations before a theme is stated, and there are excellent solos from Golia and Blakeslee.
Rob Mazurek has long been entrenched in his eclectic, global and multi-media creative sphere making it easy for listeners to forget his musical roots. With his 1994 leader debut, Man Facing East (Hep Records), he had already shown signs of breaking with convention, particularly on the title track of that album. The electro-acoustic cornet and keyboard player and visual artist began his music career in Chicago, working his way through hard bop and progressive rock before finding his place in the avant-garde/free improvisation sub-genres. The latter forms do little justice to the unique and varied approaches that Mazurek pursues across multiple group formations. Rome, is Mazurek's first solo outing since Vortice of the Faun (Astral Spirits, 2015), a very different, all-electronic noise album.
Blakeslee's an extremely gifted, Oregon-based trumpeter of a cantankerously lyrical free jazz persuasion. His concept leans heavily on tonal centers, it seems, even though the contexts of the blowing can become significantly atonal. He's an imaginative and original player of whom much more should be heard. Blakeslee's colleagues are all of a similar caliber; the multi-reedist Vinny Golia is, of course, one of the most dramatic improvisers extant, as is the lesser-known but prodigiously inventive pianist Tad Weed. On a number of occasions, as a soloist, Weed lifts the proceedings to extraordinary levels of excitement; he has a pronounced ability to pace, organize, and build upon his statements.
The opening ensembles of "Just off the Avenue" at first make it sound as if this is going to be a conventional hard bop quintet date, but that feeling is quickly dispelled. The music becomes progressively freer, and after a fairly straight-ahead trumpet solo from leader Rob Blakeslee (who contributed the five originals), pianist Tad Weed takes the music outside, where it remains during Vinny Golia's baritone solo before the band swings its way out. All five selections are lengthy and they often go in unexpected directions.