Richard Sussman is not a well-known jazz musician, but perhaps that is because he has issued only three albums as a leader since his 1978 debut, Free Fall
. The others include his 2010 release, Live at Sweet Rhythm
, and this year's Continuum
. Sussman may not be a household name, but he has had important roles in the jazz community as a composer (he won the ASCAP Jazz Commission for Established Composer in 2008), arranger (he's had two NEA grants for large ensembles and arranged for numerous artists including Blood, Sweat and Tears and Donna Summer), educator (he's been a faculty member at the Manhattan School of Music since 1986) and sideman (he's performed with David Sanborn, Houston Person, Sonny Fortune and lots more).
The hour-long, nine-track Continuum
is aptly titled. The album continues an overall mood and feel, which Sussman began on Free Fall
and sustained on Live at Sweet Rhythm
. Sussman even uses some of the same musicians. Notable tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi is featured on all three releases. Bassist Mike Richmond and drummer Jeff Williams were also on the live record. And along for the ride on Continuum
are two special guests: trumpeter Randy Brecker (who adds flugelhorn to one cut) and guitarist Mike Stern (Blood, Sweat and Tears, Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Steps Ahead, et al) is highlighted on another piece.
Sussman's seven originals and two covers (Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz's standard "Alone Together" and Fred Lacey's "Theme for Ernie," recorded by many but probably best known as a vehicle for John Coltrane) range from traditional jazz to fusion, and from bouncy to sublime. Sussman's opener, "Spare Change," is a funky tribute to Horace Silver, where the group captures Silver's blend of earthiness and urban chic. The horn players stand out prominently. Bergonzi shows his distinctive post-bop approach, with just a slice of restlessness, while Brecker's solo is twisting and supple. Brecker, by the way, spent time in Silver's band, so he proves a perfect foil for Sussman's expressive homage. Sussman's solo piano spotlight merges a Silver-like soulfulness with some tasty modal components. Brecker also shines on a warm rendition of "Alone Together," a spot-on setting for Brecker's fluid Flugelhorn. Williams and Richmond provide a sure-footed pace with just the right amount of rhythmic variety. Sussman slips in a striding piano solo which inventively explores the famous melody while intensifying the momentum, and then Brecker returns with a pillowy improvisation to finish up.
Another type of tribute comes with the thoroughly contemporary, "Mike's Blues," a funk-filled pleaser which Sussman penned specifically for Stern. Strictly speaking, this jazz-fusion piece is not blues, per se, but Sussman explains in the CD liner notes that "it can actually be analyzed as a blues, if you think of each of the first four 3-bar phrases as elongated 2-bar phrases." Regardless, there are bluesy lines accentuated by Stern's probing guitar, Sussman's spirited synth (think of a mixture of Joe Zawinul and Stevie Wonder) and the two horns: Bergonzi in particular delivers a passionate solo statement. Of course, Stern's solo is a representative string burner, polished but powerful jazz-rock. Hopefully, Sussman can utilize Stern again on a future date, since their keys/guitar interplay is great to hear.
Another highpoint is an elegiac take on "Theme for Ernie," an affirmative ballad written by Lacey for the departed altoist Ernie Henry, who played with Thelonious Monk and Kenny Dorham among others. The piece was first put on tape by Coltrane for his 1958 release, Soultrane. "Theme for Ernie" is an obvious selection for Bergonzi to display his tenor sax talents and reveals how Bergonzi has integrated Coltrane's influence into his own musical style. Sussman incorporates a tender piano intro and a similar solo into this shimmering and lucid tune, but listening to Bergonzi's emotive chords is the real focus. Sussman's sensitive side is also fittingly presented on the piano trio performance of "It's Never Too Late," dedicated to Sussman's wife. Here, Richmond's bass is at the forefront, where he shares the ballad's thoughtful melody with the pianist, and also takes a memorable solo. Sussman, Richmond and Williams operate as one unit with sympathy and concentrated affection. Continuum closes with the title track, the album's most exploratory number. There is a sinewy tautness to the main theme, and the lengthy tune includes swelling piano phrases, diverse rhythmic changes, and authoritative solos from the quintet: this is a high energy and free-blowing declaration of purpose which demonstrates Sussman should definitely keep rolling out more records.