Peter Epstein Quartet

Polarities
Songlines SGL-1607-2

By Ken Waxman

Fittingly titled, the polarities implicit on this CD are the equal magnetic pulls of inventive soloing from alto and soprano saxophonist Peter Epstein and trumpeter/cornetist Ralph Alessi. Epstein, who teaches at the University of Nevada, Reno, balances each of the nine tunes he wrote for this session between compositional expression and pure improvising. Additionally he and Alessi, who have played together since the’90s and co-founded Brooklyn’s School for Improvisational Music, function Janus-like as similarly inclined but individual soloists. Not that it’s a two-man show though. Sam Minaie’s rugged bass line sets up many themes, while Mark Ferber resolutely manages the beat through tough swingers and emotive ballads. Three-quarters of the band may be NYC residents, but it sounds as if the four play together every day.

Polarities’ sonic attractions are expressed in microcosm on tunes such as “Old Yarn” and “Email from Nigeria”. The former has song-like underpinnings, while the latter, unlike the spam it brings to mind, is a study in 10/8 rhythms you welcome. Knitting together strands of sonic color, the Johnny Hodges-like sweetness of the composer’s alto is soon doubled by graceful brass pirouettes from Alessi on “Old Yarn”, with the bassist’s tough yet supple plucks adding the final stitching to make the musical garment whole.

An unabashed swinger which alternates captivating harmonies with individual pecks and peeps from the horns, the pace on “Email from Nigeria” is stabilized by Ferber’s bass drum beats. Additionally while Alessi exhibits truncated high pitches here, they always modulate back to the melody line. Completely assured throughout the CD, whether the piece calls for rubato explorations or plunger breaks, Alessi’s trumpet work references Miles Davis and his cornet Don Cherry; but the end product is completely original. It’s the same for Epstein’s writing, which throughout suggest a mixture of delicacy and definition. As director of UNR’s program in jazz and improvisational music, it’s obvious he’s internalized West Coast jazz, Jazz Messenger hard bop, early Ornette Coleman and Swing Era tropes. But while his compositions in part nod towards these antecedents, the results are organic and individual.

Unlike some of the chancier choices one can gamble on in Reno, betting on the high quality of Polarities is an almost guaranteed sure thing.

Tracks: Polarity; Tiny Expanding Universe; Forever Now; Old Yarn; Email from Nigeria; Aholdu; Constance; Hurtle; Stillness

Personnel: Ralph Alessi: trumpet and cornet; Peter Epstein: alto and soprano saxophones; Sam Minaie: bass; Mark Ferber: drums

—For The New York City Jazz Record August 2014