Playful twists on conventional jazz pepper Apples + Oranges, the new album from Bay Area sax/clarinet player Cory Wright and his quintet of locals.
It’s a free-jazz album at heart, with lots of room for improvisation and plenty of unconventional structure in the songs. But it all stems from a sunny disposition that colors the modern bebop composing, producing a great session overall.
“Freddie Awaits the Sleepers” bursts forth to start the album with tangly horns and bright, jumping bass from Lisa Mezzacappa. Jordan Glenn propels the song from the drum kit, continually percolating behind the solos, which use different tactics to weave their way into the songs. After a solid trombone solo by Rob Ewing, Wright’s tenor sax puts up easy runs of notes contrasted against the driving rhythm. Evan Francis’ alto then plays off the fury of Glenn’s drums by working in high, whining registers, a different type of ear-pleasing contrast. (I think I’ve got the order of the solos right.)
“Whaticism” is a perky and upright bit of swinging whimsy, opening with a jaunty sound. The horns act as the chord instrument, backing up each solo with little written-out phrases or, in the case of the bass solo, a repeated joint squeal. “Low Impact Critter” takes a less jazzy approach, with each instrument pecking sparsely in rapid-fire tradeoffs to create the skeleton of a swing. Later, it’s got flute, clarinet, and trombone mixing it up for a drumless improvisation that’s a lot of fun. “The Sea and Space” is slow but bright, Wright’s clarinet proudly fluttering over a minor-key composition with a catchy bass rhythm and calm lines from the horns. It ends with a hard-driven groove backing Ewing’s trombone solo. Everything wraps up with “St. Bruno’s Purview,” a showy tune with hints of old-timey melody. It features some throaty, burbly clarinet moments — a complement to two other “St. Bruno’s”-titled tracks that serve as short interludes.
The most drastic mood shift comes with the 11-minute “Eyedrop,” an exercise in sparse improvisation. Its opening themes are small modern-classical scribbles, spaced apart by quiet, crawling improv segments, one of which eventually takes over to form a slowly jazz-oriented improvising over small, composed outlines. It’s gutsy to take up so much of the album with an experimental piece, but it’s also a way to show off another side of the high-caliber band assembled here. Mezzacappa’s bass solo, over slowly cascading horn notes, is a nice lead-in to the song’s final theme. “Eyedrop” might seem like a speed bump to some listeners who tune in more easily to the overly jazzy tracks, like an orange among the apples, but I’m happy to take them all in together.