Last year we introduced a really good avanteer to this site in Rich Halley, a lively and imaginative saxophonist and composer who would probably be more of a household name if he were in Chicago or New York instead of Portland, Oregon. Or played in a world-renowned venue like the Village Vanguard instead of Potter Valley, California. But Halley lives where he wants to live and plays what he wants to play, which is out jazz. And thankfully so, because he does it so well. Halley, as I observed in that 2010 review, is expressive and passionate, but in a controlled way that recalls tradition without feeling constrained by it." He's been compared to everyone from Hawkins, to Rollins to Ayler, and he retains a bit of all those influences, but the end product is a full throated reed voice that's all his own.
The record Halley released last May, Requiem For A Pit Viper, is more of that thing he does so well. Joining him are two holdovers from Live At The Penofin Jazz Festival, Clyde Reed on bass and Rich's son Carson Halley on drums. Mike Vlatkovich completes the quartet, on trombone, percussion and squeak toys." Of course, as soon as I read on the back of the CD sleeve that Halley's trombone player pulled out the squeak toys for the sessions, I figured that I was going to love this record.
Vlatkovich is an impish trombonist in the tradition of Roswell Rudd and Ray Anderson who takes chances constantly and somehow lands on his feet every time. A perfect companion to Halley, in other words. Reed is typically called upon to lay down the bedrock for a plethora of Halley's unique grooves, and he's plenty nimble enough to handle the changes. Carson Halley is also versatile, able to swing hard and rock hard with equal aplomb, and sometimes is called to do so within the same song. But with the power comes the nuances, and his cymbal and rim work are often just as key as his more direct maneuvers: check the lightly rollicking drum solo that settles down to a Caribbean pulse in perfect tandem with Reed behind Vlatkovich's trombone remarks on Subterranean Strut," for example.
Requiem For A Pit Viper" Starts with a hard rock stomp then flips over to hard swing mode. Halley and Vlatkovich are soloing like demons when the song backs up and a jungle beat emerges. Reed and Vlatkovich playfully fight for attention until everyone backs out to let Reed rumble on by himself. Despite all of the blindsides, the title song has a well-defined head and knows where its headed. A lot has happened on this record already and that was just the first song.
The younger Halley sets the pace on Snippet Stop Warp," using a kind of fragmented calypso beat as Reed rolls along like Charlie Haden in Ornette's band. I love the interaction between Rich and Vlatkovich; each time one of them solos, the other occasionally chimes in to accentuate the statements; sometimes even with extra percussion instead of a horn. In this band, everyone stays busy.
Halley's brand of whack jazz never totally abandons the melody but keeps it in a wide orbit. Even for the condensed can of whoop-ass that begins View From The Underpass," there's a guiding force that keeps the music on track and provides a starting point for the conversations he and Vlatkovich engage in. The groove on Circumambulation" is a Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison one, which is enough to make this a great track by itself, but Halley's fine tenor sax solomaybe his best on this albumputs the icing on this Coltrane cake. Wake Up Line" (video below) might be the most traditional sounding tune on this album, but even here there are time signature change-ups and a loose song structure that enables the front line to really stretch out.
Maj" is the ballad of the bunch, with Carson Halley providing no timekeeping, just accents, and the elder Halley and Vlatkovich draw out the notes for maximal emotional expression. As you might expect, those squeak toys Vlatkovich plays with are heard on Squeaker." But not to worry, he's still playing the trombone, too, and even eight songs in, there are still new grooves being trotted out, this one defined by Reed's spare but funky bass line finding a home around Carson's relaxed rhythm. Afternoon In June" is a bossa nova, Rich Halley style, and for this one, Vlatkovich expertly works a mute on his trombone.
This is a record by Rich Halley's small record label from a guy in a relatively small town. But don't let that fool ya,' because on this record Halley and his men make a big, happy noise. Fun, energetic and tradition-rooted but bursting out from tradition, Requiem For A Pit Viper reminds me about what drew me into whack jazz in the first place. One of the best avant-garde jazz records so far this year, this gets my nod easily over some of the more highly touted records coming from New York or Chicago. It goes to show that excellence in jazz isn't necessarily tied to a location.