Rich Halley 4, Crossing the Passes (Pine Eagle Records)

9 Jun

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When surveying the American jazz landscape, there is a good chance that the West Coast will get shortchanged. Since the days of Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, or Shelly Manne, musicians who have called Los Angeles, Seattle, or even San Francisco home have had a hart time to get some attention. Tenor sax Rich Halley hails from Portland and despite churning out albums for over 30 years he is hardly a household name.

Crossing the Passes is one more addition to a recent string of consistently fine albums featuring a now steady quartet that includes Los Angeles trombonist Michael Vlatkovich, another under-recognized artist, bass player Clyde Reed, and drummer Carson Halley. The saxophonist’s recipe is an astute mix of post-bop and free-bop, an ideal environment for a band that is just as comfortable swinging hard as venturing in the unknown.

Halley is a lyrical and forceful saxophone player as well as a focused and driven band leader. His modus operandi is often a simple and effective melody used as a springboard for improvisation. This, however, does not equate to monotony. “Smooth Curve of the Bow” opens with a grand bowed bass intro before leaving way to a funky beat the Art Ensemble of Chicago would have relished; “The Spring Rains” is a ballad reminiscent of Mingus; and, “Journey Across the Land”‘s mood and walking bass style would be a perfect backdrop for Tom Waits.

Vlatkovich and Halley are real brothers in arms and share the free spirit of the late Jim Pepper, another Portland legend that never received the accolades he deserved. Their exchanges are always stimulating, sometimes playful or truculent, and benefit from a rock-solid and involved rhythm section that can also engage in a meaningful dialogue (“Traversing the Maze”).

Rich Halley’s music might not be the most original, but the musicians’ sincerity and honesty as well as the heartfelt and sometimes gut-wrenching delivery help this disc rise about the crop.

-Alain Drouot

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