Out of the Blue is a band that came together less than a year ago, though the authority and the willingness to play could fool you. Its members - drummer Ralph Peterson, bassist Bob Hurst, pianist Harry Pickens, tenor saxophonist Ralph Bowen, alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and trumpeter Michael Philip Mossman - are further proof of the renaissance presently taking place in jazz , a renewed and fiery dedication to the most demanding of Western performing arts. Though these are all young men, they know that there isn't another idiom in which the performer has to reach the level of sophistication that distinguishes the jazz musician. The jazz artist has to do the job in the present, making variations and keeping them so logical that they fit into the context of ensemble creation. They pick the notes, the rhythms, the harmonies, and the registers - all of which must make sense. Improvisation on the order that you hear from good jazz musicians is never random, is never free in the frivolous sense. That the players in Out of the Blue know that and aspire to passionate and logical performance makes their first record on this label in keeping with the tradition that made Blue Note so important in the history of jazz.
One of the signal virtues of the music made by Out of the Blue is that it stands as a form of rebellion against the pretensions of the so-called avant garde and the cynical submissions to fusion that helped push actual jazz underground in most of the country outside of New York. These young men aren't about foisting the clichés of twentieth century European music on jazz nor are they caught up in the ethnic field recordings and the piles of instruments that the band members can hardly play but are rationalized as aspects of "advancing the music." They avoid contrivances. It is also true that you will hear no electric piano, no synthesizer, no Fender bass, no counterfeit drums, no dependence on the small body of clichés that dominate the sugar pop of the market, inspiring certain middle-aged men to look and sound like fools. Out of the Blue is past all of that; it is an ensemble luminously in tune with integrity. These young men aim for harmonic authority and adventure, for rhythmic variety and vitality, for melody-making and swing.
It is that decision to deal with the central victories of the music over the last twenty-five years that gives this debut such sparkle. In an era when so much mediocrity and ineptitude is celebrated, the will to quality is a brave decision, a choice that provides pleasure different from that of work which is dictated purely by trends and fraudulence. Quality is now so rare in so many things that it seems a new direction in itself, especially since the bulk of young musicians thing more about becoming highly paid or controversial exponents of cliches and fakery than anything else. The most important thing to the members of Out of the Blue is sounding good. They have focused on the reinterpretations of the jazz basics that most appeal to them and, in doing so, have given notice that yet another aspect of the force that makes for a rich jazz tradition is now available: young artists who aren't afraid of the standards set by the masters. Those standards were set in the basics of four/four (slow, medium, fast), the blues, the ballad, and Afro-Hispanic or "Latin" rhythms. It is also true that, at least since Fats Waller's "Jitterbug Waltz," jazz musicians have gathered more meters under the mantle of swing. And swing as you hear it on this disc is delivered with an on-going complexity that supplies intricate expressions of mood.
All of the songs are originals, ranging from the fire and the mutable structure of "RH Factor" to the lyricism of "Eastern Love Village," from the slick development of the riff that is "Output" to the extended form of the blues-based "Git in There." Then there is the meter-shifting "Blue Hughes" (dedicated to the Negro poet), the forceful exchanges on "Reunited" and the Messenger-like "OTB." Interestingly, though Woody Shaw's influence can clearly be heard in Mossman's trumpet playing, it is also observable how much of an impact he has had on the writing for the date - proof that these musicians have given attention to one of the more important individuals to come into his own over the last decade and a half. That the writing avoids dependence on the sound of popular songs gives it a clear position in a tradition that has been moving away from those materials since the middle '50s. It also makes one wonder much more excitement will come from these young writers.
Regardless of how good writing is, the point in a jazz band is the playing that gives it variations on the hoof. The authority of these performances is fueled by the drive of a rhythm section unwilling to coast. Peterson, Hurst, and Pickens listen and respond at every bar, always striving for the most musical idea possible. Peterson is already one of the three or four finest young drummers on the Manhattan scene, capable of working with jazz players of any persuasion. He already has his own sound and a technical control that makes his independent coordination flow with heated smoothness as he wraps rhythms around the tempo and the meter. Peterson always pays close attention to what is going on and loves to shape variations on the tune into his accompaniment. Notice how he takes the opening rhythms of "Output" and uses them as a prod to the horns during their features, as but one example. His solos are witty and virtuosic and he can drive with relaxed swing. Hurst has been heard about more than he has been seen outside his home town of Detroit, but the amount of harmony he knows, his beat, and what will eventually become a bigger, thicker sound guarantee a prominent position in the will to quality emerging in the '80s. Pickens has been getting attention for some time now through his work with Johnny Griffin and deservedly. He has a bright sound that combines a ring and a throb, his left hand figures tend to become rhythmic counterpoint on their own, the percussive strength of the piano in jazz hasn't gone past him, and he phrases with as much intelligence as intensity. In all, the kind of rhythm section that inspires.
Listening to the horns orchestrate their ideas within the environment provided by the rhythm section is well worth the listening time. Garrett, Bowen, and Mossman are musicians who neither place their lines on top of the rhythm section like postage stamps, nor do they ignore the full identity of a given piece when they improvise. Each of them is working on what I have come to think of as the Thelonious Monk improvising concept: everything - rhythm, harmony, motif, melodic shape, color, accents - is developed in the playing. Nothing is left behind. Also, like Monk, each man listens closely to what was improvised before his own feature and uses that material to make for a continuity that doesn't intrude upon individuality. Since all of these horn men are in their twenties and the rhythm section is equally young, we have to assume that we can expect a great deal from them over the years. Already, they have proven that though the name of the band is Out of the Blue, they didn't just pop up out of nowhere. They know from whence they come, and that knowing will undoubtedly help them enrich the music.