Jason Stein Quartet

The Story This Time
Delmark DE 2013

Having chosen to make the often unwieldy bass clarinet his only horn, Chicago-based Jason Stein has also had to use good-old American ingenuity to carve out a singular path for himself. Unlike the relative handful of bass clarinetists who don’t double on other reeds and mostly concentrate on New music or abstract expressionism, Stein defines himself as a Jazzman. Thus this CD’s program mixes five knotty Stein originals with a half dozen other tunes composed either by Thelonious Monk or members of the so-called Lennie Tristano school. Additionally the entire program is anchored by the woody time-keeping of bassist Joshua Abrams and the rhythmic accents of drummer Frank Rosaly.

Stein, who often works in bands with multi-reedists, Ken Vandermark or Kyle Bruckmann confirms his original take on Jazz by his choice of front-line partner. Transplanted from Arkansas to the Windy City, Keefe Jackson manages to reach both expected and unusual timbres in his choice of instruments: tenor saxophone and contrabass clarinet. Intriguingly enough his playing leans more towards the mainstream on the larger horn. On Stein’s “Laced Case” for example, his blurry, gritty tenor tone resembles that of Archie Shepp circa 1965. Meanwhile when his contrabass clarinet is harmonized with Stein’s mid-sized reed, as on Monk’s “Skippy”, it sounds as if Stein is playing Zoot Sims to his Gerry Mulligan on a variant of one of Mulligan’s piano-less combos of the 1950s. The upshot is that the piece ends up with the same sort of witty counterpoint that characterizes compositions of Tristano, Lee Konitz and especially Warne Marsh elsewhere on the disc. Oddly enough, familiar Monkisms only appear in the release.

More substantial are Stein’s original tunes which frequently take advantage of the bassist’s skill which has also been exhibited in other ensembles fronted by the likes of flautist Nicolle Mitchell. For example “Hoke’s Dream” leads from Abrams sawing on his strings to a theme moved forward by the reeds in double counterpoint, with timbres never bleeding into one another, but maintaining a pristine separation, As Rosaly’s rolls subtly pace the line, the composer adds squeaks and key percussion, reaching multiphonics before uniting with the other reedist’s tones.

Even more notable is how Stein initially highlights the lowest timbres of the bass clarinet following bass-string strumming in the introduction to “Badlands”. Soon harmonized with saxophone pecks, he and Jackson indulge in off-kilter call-and-response backed by Abrams’ woody cracks and Rosaly’s rim shots and jumps. Here too the clarinetist’s narrowed vamping transforms into mellow glissandi, and subsides to even lower pitches before joining Jackson for the finale.

The Story This Time proves that Stein is perceptively helping to elevate the bass clarinet’s role to that of a lead instrument. But the added advantage of this CD is that its themes and the virtuositic playing make it the more approachable for the curious, who don’t want to stray too far away from accepted Jazz traditions.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Background Music 2. Laced Case 3. Little Big Horse 4. Skippy 5. Badlands 6. Palo Alto 7. Hatoolie 8. Gallop's Gallop 9. Hoke's Dream 10. Work 11. Lennie Bird.

Personnel: Jason Stein (bass clarinet); Keefe Jackson (tenor saxophone and contrabass clarinet); Joshua Abrams (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums)