(Marlene Rosenberg's "Bassprint")is a splendid effort, showcasing a band with a breezy esthetic, and it boasts plenty of technique and taste from her collaborators: saxist Geof Bradfield, guitarist Scott Hesse, and the rapidly evolving young drummer Makaya McCraven.
But from the very first track, even those unfamiliar with Rosenberg might guess that the leader is in fact the bassist (and not just because she takes the album's initial solo).
Quite often, a band led by a back-line player (a bassist or drummer) is really fronted by someone else: the pianist or horn player, say, who makes the announcements and becomes the face of the group. In such cases, the leader shapes the music by selecting the musicians, writing the songs or picking the repertoire, and imparting a group dynamic ? and then reverting to the standard accompaniment role on the stand.
Not so with Rosenberg. You can tell who's in charge from the first notes of the opening ensemble, where the bass is so motile, so actively melodic ? so present, even underneath the other instruments ? that it beckons the spotlight. Rosenberg stamps the music with her dead-center beat, and with the impact that her walking-bass melodies have on the theme statements themselves, in addition to the solos she accompanies.
With all that going on, the fact that her own solos unspool with such verve and purpose, carried along by a dusky dark timbre ? the sound I imagine a baobab tree might make, if it could sing ? is almost a bonus.
Her solos stand head to head with those of Hesse and Bradfield, which is no mean feat: each of them ranks among the most engaging Chicago improvisers on their respective instruments. The more frequently-recorded Bradfield has the greater burden here, since we've gotten to hear him so often; but he still manages to surprise and impress, especially on soprano sax. His labyrinthine inventions contrast effectively with the straightforward force of Hesse's lines, and provide a welcome versatility in the process.
This has much to do with Rosenberg's compositions, the titles of which make clear her heroes and influences: one named for Thelonious Monk, two named after Wayne Shorter; two more were written by pianist Kenny Barron, with whom Rosenberg has often performed. Wry and compact, these tunes offer good fodder for her bandmates, and they don't waste it.
Rosenberg has spent three decades as a world-class player based in Chicago, working behind a parade of famous soloists with occasional stints on the road, most notably with saxist Joe Henderson and drummer Ed Thigpen. Bassprint, only the third album under her own name, returns her to center stage, a location she fully deserves.