Soft Shell
Knitting Factory Works KFW-281

Whether by accident or design, saxophonist Andy Laster has put himself in the position of being the least imposing member of his own ensemble. This sometimes happens in jazz, with pianist Dave Brubeck's combo being the most famous example.

While Laster is no Brubeck, he has created a situation on this disc where the leader and chief composer is overshadowed by his sidemen, which is similar to what Brubeck had to face once his band was completed by Paul Desmond, Eugene Wright and Joe Morello.

Another New York "downtowner", Laster has played baritone and alto saxophonist with the Julius Hemphill Sextet, Orange Then Blue and New and Used as well as on his own. What little soloing he does himself here is merely amiable and usually mid tempo, relaxed to the point of invisibility. Maybe he should have brought his baritone sax along.

Moreover, to follow the Brubeck analogy still further, his compositions, which make up every track but one on SOFT SHELL, sound like contemporary versions of the sort of airy West Coast Jazz Brubeck was suppose to typify. The end result is more soporific than satisfying

Taken as a whole, the tunes appear to be a series of short soundalikes that don't force the other musicians to raise a sweat while playing. Sometimes they even end abruptly, as if ideas have been exhausted and its time to go on to the next one.

Which is where the parallel with the Brubeck band rises to the fore. Hydra's other tentacles are some of Manhattan's top younger musicians. Robertson, for instance, a fiery, inventive brassman who has enlivened groups lead by the likes of Mark Helias and Gerry Hemingway, operates at the top of his form here. And it doesn't matter whether he's blasting out the title tune or "Tentacles", relaying some growl trumpet on "Horripilate" or engaging in stop time counterpoint with the saxist on "July Song". More mainstream, Gress is the sort of dependable, unshowy bassman who can follow any tune and any soloist, while Rainey — another Helias mainstay — can be subtle if need be, or brawny as the hardiest John Bonham follower if necessary, as he shows on "South Shore Reform Experience, Part II".

Judging by his credentials, Laster is certainly capable of better work. So was Brubeck. In fact, as he got older the pianist gradually improved to the point that his playing can be enjoyable, even without star soloists. Maybe Laster just needs a few more sideman gigs to come to a similar plateau.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Soft Shell 2. Here I'll Stay 3. Like Plankton 4. Horripilate 5. Floating 6. No. 16 7. South Shore Reform Experience, Part II 8. July Song 9. Tentacles 10. Hex 11. South Shore Reform Experience, Part IV

Personnel: Herb Robertson (trumpet, cornet); Andy Laster (alto saxophone); Drew Gress (bass); Tom Rainey (drums)