A two-saxophone quintet is often a rambunctious affair. Recall the famous pairings of Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims or Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray. Innate one-upmanship often manifested in exciting cutting sessions. Not so with the frontline of tenor saxophonist Chris Clark and alto and soprano saxophonist Peter Epstein, who work in tandem to bring Clark’s compositions to fruition. The opening “Improvisation I” — a freely evolving saxophone duet without rhythm section — offers a revealing forecast of the eight cuts to follow. Hardly ever rising above mezzo piano, the slow-moving horns weave a dark and moody tapestry, bending dissonant quartertones into wistful minor modes. Throughout this thoughtful set, scant reference is made to a genial major chord.
Clark is based in Boston, but on Cedar Wisely— his first CD as a leader — he surrounds himself with players affiliated with the University of Nevada at Reno. Clark received his masters in jazz studies there while studying with Epstein. With its reliance on deliberate dynamics and varying instrumental timbres, Clark’s music might be described as chamber jazz. Only the Ornette-ish “Inside the Gloves” and the Latin hybrid “Cage Factor” charge out of the gates with relative vitality. Yet, solos build, often with the saxophonists soaring into the altissimo with split tones and primal screams reminiscent of latter-day Coltrane. The simpatico rhythm section of pianist David Ake, bassist Zack Teran and drummer Jesus Vega begin songs softly, escalating with the intensity of each soloist. Cues are ad libbed throughout each piece, leading the ensemble to seamless segues into subsequent sections. The days of formulaic hard bop are waning, succumbing to individual through-composed music such as this. Cedar Wisely is sensitive, evocative and ultimately successful music, requiring multiple listens to fully appreciate this quintet’s vision.
— James Rozzi