Peter Epstein Quartet - Polarities [Songlines - 2014]Saxophonist/composer/bandleader Peter Epstein and his band play a cerebral iteration of classically informed post bop with complex, meandering head melodies inspired by the likes of John Coltrane or Eric Dolphy, whose asymmetrical, oddly composed figures may at first sound improvised, until played again verbatim in their vast entireties. With 9 diverse pieces spanning 65 minutes, Epstein's group covers a huge amount of ground.
This quartet utilizes the traditional pre-electric instrumentation of drums, string bass, cornet/trumpet and alto/soprano saxophone. The production on this album is perfect; warm and analog without the tape hiss found on actual vintage jazz recordings, much like you're in a smoky bar and the band is playing right in front of you. The vividness of the instrument tones has been perfectly captured.
"Forever Now" has the classic sort of call and response melody that every jazz composer is trying to write, a hum-along refrain that speaks to the daily grind. The carefully chosen notes of melodies like this are the perfect example of the way a simple, catchy melody can feel mature, concise and multifaceted, rather than overdone or obvious.
"Old Yarn" starts with the saxophone alone in a characteristic back alley soliloquy. Seeing this man playing on the street, one could not help but feel for him. A long, bleating run down the scale ends with an unexpected couple of stabs just for good measure. The spirited and whimsical solos have all the charm of a good comedian's rant, but this is soulful and ernest music, with not a hint of sarcasm or distance.
The band is never afraid to delve deep into psychedelic freeform during its more exploratory moments, taking the listener surprisingly far from thoughts of the unison melodies that tend to open the pieces. The band continues to groove even in the most deconstructed contexts, though, and never really allows the momentum to drop.
If 60 - 70's hard bop is the sort of brainfood you require, this album is an authentic example of contemporary, original music in that vein, and doesn't feel forced, or limited by this 'vintage' feeling, as so many do. I loved every moment of this album, it's surely destined to be a modern classic, and very nearly on the level with its towering influences. Peter Epstein is an extraordinary musical mind.Josh Landry