For those of us unfamiliar with Richard Sussman, a glance at his website gives an insight into his background, but even a cursory listen to the Richard Sussman Quintet's Continuum, his recently released album on Origin, gives an even better indication of his artistry. A pianist and a professor of composition at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, he has worked with his share of A-list musicians, and as a leader has fronted on four albums including the 1978 Quintet recording, Free Fall.
In the liner notes to the new CD, Sussman indicates that he has gathered together the members of that original quintet with Randy Brecker replacing Tom Harrell on trumpet and flugelhorn. Back with Sussman are bassist Mike Richmond, Jeff Williams on drums, and the masterful Jerry Bergonzi on the tenor sax. Guitarist Mike Stern in on board for one track, "Mike's Blues," a tune Sussman says was "composed for the occasion as a funky, blues vehicle" for him.
Seven of the tunes on the album, including "Mike's Blues," are Sussman originals. Sussman calls "Spare Change," the opening number, his tribute to Horace Silver and makes sure that we know that the pun is intentional. The song aims to capture some of the funkiness of Silver's own writing, and it is a melodic gem. Bergonzi and Brecker contribute some elegant solo work, and Sussman has a nice bit on the piano. Come to think of it, their work throughout the album is equally elegant. "Meridian," the second piece, features the leader on synthesizer and adds some fine interplay with Richmond's bass. "The Wayfarer" is a short, free form piano improvisation based on a poem by Stephen Crane (he of The Red Badge of Courage) and intended as a prelude to "Crossroads," the album's next piece.
"It's Never Too Late" is a trio dedicated to the composer's wife. Once again it has Sussman and Richmond in subtle combination. "Continuum," the album's title song, closes the disc. The longest piece on the album, it is a complex exploration of rhythms that Sussman sees as pointing both back to his previous work and moving "the way forward." In sound and texture it seems to push beyond the bounds of most of the other compositions on the CD. Metaphorically, he has come to the crossroads and chosen (as he says) all directions, but in a sense, all directions are forward.
Fred Lacey's "Theme for Ernie," a ballad recorded by John Coltrane, and the standard "Alone Together" are the two non-originals. Bergonzi is featured on the first and Brecker's flugelhorn on the second.
Musically inventive yet tunefully melodic, Continuum has a lot going for it. These are musicians at the top of their game, and clearly enjoying what they are doing. It is impossible not to enjoy along with them.