Recent Recordings by Area Artists

Michael Dease, professor of trombone at Michigan State University, has acquired an impressive discography in his still young career, topped off by winning the best trombone award in the 2022 Downbeat critics’ poll. His latest recording is a profound delight, entitled The Other Shoe: The Music of Gregg Hill (Origin 82868). The personnel on this CD consist of Michael Dease – trombone, baritone saxophone, percussion; Virginia MacDonald – clarinet; Geoffrey Keezer and Luther Allison – piano; Liany Mateo – bass; and Colleen Clark – drums; with guests Rodney Whitaker – bass; Kevin Jones and Gwendolyn Dease – percussion; and Joel Perez – trombone.

For this release Dease assembled a multi-generational ensemble consisting of fellow Michigan State faculty, students, and alumnae together with well-known pianist Keezer and the impressive Toronto clarinetist MacDonald, who is clearly a rising star, well established in Canada but who needs to better known south of the border. The leader has focused on the works of the prodigious Michigan composer Gregg Hill, writing all the arrangements as well as playing baritone sax on three tunes in addition to his usual trombone. The choice and ordering of tunes is well-thought out, forming a recital of sorts, with a deliberate shifting of tempos and moods, with much accent on the arrangements, which cover a broad range of textures, from full ensembles to unaccompanied piano or just one horn and bass. Dease leads with his horns but is most generous with solos, giving the clarinetist, both pianists and the bassists plenty of room to shine. In this context, MacDonald is particularly impressive, playing with marvelous fluency and expressiveness, an easy virtuosity, fantastic tone, and a welcome lack of bop clichés.

Just a few words about some of the ten tracks. “Hello Blues” opens with Ray Brownish bass chords with Dease stating the melody then joined by MacDonald, segueing to a trombone dramatic chorus by the leader and short solos by bassist Mateo and MacDonald’s fluid but expressive clarinet, and then guest Rodney Whitaker reminds us once again what the bass, and the blues, are all about, who then hands it over to Keezer. This is followed by “The Goodbye Blues,” likewise an old-fashioned one, featuring the spare idiomatic piano of State alumnus Allison, quite different in spirit from what we just heard from Keezer, with an equally eloquent bass solo by Mateo followed by a conversation between MacDonald, Dease, now on baritone sax, and the trombone in the hands of Perez, ending with the piano alone. The Latin-tinged “Rio Mio” is very much an ensemble piece, enlarged by the addition of percussionists Kevin Jones and Gwendolyn Dease, with the leader back on baritone sax. The tune opens with delightful solos by the clarinetist and by Perez on trombone, who shows that while he may still be a student, he is completely on par with his more experienced bandmates and continues with idiomatic riffing by the band. The last track, “The Other Shoe,” is the longest one and the most “modern” one, with Allison on Fender Rhodes, the rhythms jagged and often out of set tempo. Here Dease really lets loose; his compact trombone solo showcasing his splendid command of the horn, followed by a snippet on bari sax that shows off his fine, full sound on the horn.

Balance, the collaborative duo of saxophonist and bass clarinetist Marcus Elliot and pianist Michael Malis that is well-known to area listeners, has recently released their second CD, Conjure (Bandcamp), available as a CD, an LP, and in the form of a digital download from Joel Peterson’s wonderful Two Rooms Records label. On this release, the duo is joined on two numbers by drummer Gerald Cleaver and on two others by vocalist Chace Morris. The striking cover is taken from a collage by Addie Langford.

The recital begins with high drama with Morris expounding on realities of life in Detroit, his voice modulating in synchrony with the words as the duo works in perfect synchrony with his enunciation and aural contours. The title tune is then followed by a post-boppy “Leap Year,” where Elliot’s tenor flies over the rich piano chording, with the complex melody then stated perfectly in tandem, and only then followed by Malis’ solo. Moods shift as the recital moves on, from the defiant opening, the upbeat but sometimes wistful second tune, on to the elegiac “Pathways,” to the quirky off-kilter “MRA.” Elliot is on soprano here; this the first tune not in strict time all the way through, with complex rhythms made all the more angular by Cleaver’s complex percussion, creating a three-way conversation that is constantly shifting in a manner that seems freely improvised, with the kind of telepathic mutual reaction to every nuance that can only be achieved by years of playing together. When we get to “Serpent’s Serpent” the music becomes mysterious, beginning with Malis playing inside the piano and Elliot’s breathy tenor setting up for Morris to recite a complex, urgent and highly metaphoric poem — all with dramatic timing which ends quietly and delves into silence. And then, boom, comes the finale, in the form of the singing boppish “Number Four,” an iconic Detroit composition by the late Lawrence Williams that harkens back to the opening poem about the city. Joined by Cleaver once again, this time in driving jazz time, the musicians end by strutting their jazz chops and love of tradition that informs their explorations that look towards a different future.

Conjure is thus more than a collection of tunes. The sequencing of the tracks reveals a powerful creative and cultural intentionality that exploits the mature instrumental and compositional skills of the musicians for expressive means without any redundant gestures. The addition of Morris is particularly powerful as it reinforces the duo’s commitment to willfully and sensitively continuing and expanding Detroit’s musical legacy. This is a recording that will have staying power as it reveals many subtle new delights with repeated listening. A true beauty!