My introduction to drummer Dana Hall was his March 2009 appearance as guest soloist with the Nebraska Jazz Orchestra. The concert's advance publicity touted his degree in aerospace engineering, music composition and music arranging, an impressive resume that left me wondering if he was just another academic who dabbled in jazz.
His performance that night and his debut recording as a leader, "Into the Light," leave no room for doubt. Hall has all the percussion chops, composing skills and soulfulness that you could ask for, and his heavyweight bandmates lend him additional credibility. They are trumpeter Terell Stafford, saxophonist Tim Warfield Jr., keyboardist Bruce Barth and drummer Rodney Whitaker.
"Into the Light" begins with Herbie Hancock's "I Have a Dream," the only tune not written by either Hall or one of his band colleagues. Barth's bright, harmonic punctuation on Fender Rhodes recall Hancock's fusion projects of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Urged along by Hall's powerful drumming, Warfield soars into the stratosphere on tenor sax, followed by an equally exciting solo by Stafford.
The quintet at times sounds like an updated edition of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, especially on Hall's relaxed, swinging "Conversion Song," where Warfield and Stafford solo with the hard-bop vigor of Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan. "Orchids" is a lovely jazz waltz featuring Whitaker's lyrical bass, a lilting soprano sax solo by Warfield and a penetrating piano statement from Barth.
Hall drives the title track with the insistence of a slightly mad metronome, reaching a euphoric high with Stafford adding electronic trumpet effects to Barth's electric keys and some studio reverb and sequencing on the drums. Again, it harkens back to some of the more imaginative space-age ventures of late-?60s jazz. "Black Mountain" has a modal feel that allows much improvisation and rhythmic shifts as Hall keeps the steady pace and soloists Stafford, Barth and Warfield on soprano sax circle around it.
"The Path to Love," named after a Deepak Chopra book, has an undeniably spiritual quality, further elevated by a lively, upbeat tempo. Hall's "Jabali" is his loving tribute to mentor Billy Hart, drummer on those classic Hancock recordings of the early 1970s. It is, indeed, a workout for Hall. Whitaker contributes the rather solemn, moody "For Rochelle," a tune written for his daughter. The closer is Warfield's "Tin Soldier," which begins with a thundering drum solo that sets the stage for an uplifting, rhythmic journey. Trumpet and soprano sax harmonize with the piano in tightly-locked synchronicity, all the while driven by Hall's wide-ranging rhythmic barrage.