Although Marcos Varela was born and raised in Houston, his roots go back to the tiny Texas town of San Ygnacio and the family ranch that dates back to at least the 1750's-- hence this album's title. From Varela's New York City base of the past 12 years, the active bassist has performed with such artists as Jason Moran, Geri Allen, the Mingus Big Band, and Kendrick Scott, while also composing music for film and TV. For his first CD as a leader, Varela invited one of his mentors, pianist George Cables, and two of his employers, drummer Billy Hart and trombonist Clifton Anderson, plus the promising saxophonists Logan Richardson and Dayna Stephens. Also heard on two tracks are members of Varela's one-time collective quartet, alto saxophonist Arnold Lee (Spike's half-brother), pianist Eden Ladin, and drummer Kush Abadey. The music is challenging and diverse, with well-conceived pieces by Varela, Anderson, Hart, Ladin, and veteran bassist George Mraz.
Cables' arrangement of the recording's only standard, "I Should Care," freshly harmonizes the melody, with Richardson's silky alto in the lead. The pianist's rippling modal solo displays his creative command, and Varela's is lyrically penetrating. Richardson then enters assertively, but gives way to the reprise much too soon. "Colinas de Santa Maria" is named for the Varela family's ranch, and the loping rhythms and shifting moods within the theme provoke a bristling and variegated solo from Lee on alto, whereas Ladin's turn contains a Spanish tinge that underlies his rich harmonies. Varela's subsequent improv is profoundly moving, and after the recap Abadey's drums explode over Ladin's bottom-noted vamp. Anderson's "Mitsuro" opens (and closes) with Varela's transfixing bass, setting up the robust hard bop theme from its composer, and his brash trombone solo. Cables follows up with sprinting lines and majestic chords, and Hart's workout is thematically incisive.
Hart's "Lullaby for Imke," from a 2006 release, receives a new arrangement by pianist Ezra Weiss, and proves to be an absorbing, meditative ballad as revealed by Richardson's heartfelt alto. Captivating solos are contributed by Varela (yearningly expressive) and Cables (glowingly melodic). "Sister Gemini" by Anderson is typically uplifting, with inviting changes that spark adventurous statements from the trombonist, Cables, and finally the receptive, big-eared Varela. The rapid-fire head of "Pepper" (Mraz) is forcefully executed in unison by Varela (arco) and tenor saxophonist Stephens, whose solo has Warne Marsh-like sound and phrasing out of the Tristano school of bop. Cables' enlivening effort precedes Varela's changes-devouring excursion, as well as Hart's authoritative, Max Roach-style thematic discourse. Lee's piercing alto plays the theme of Ladin's ingratiating "Red on Planet Pluto," with its bracing hook. Varela as usual by now captures one's attention from note one of his solo, and Lee's distinctive, keening sound enhances his ambitious venture. Ladin takes a more melodic approach prior to the powerful climax highlighted by Abadey's unleashed drumming.
"Looking For the Light" possesses a wistful, floating ballad theme, as articulated by Richardson's sweet-toned alto, who also embarks on a lustrous, darting solo, all the while supported by composer Cables with lush chords and fills. The pianist's exquisite improv maintains this high level, and Varela then indulges in some deeply songful storytelling. Hart's nuanced percussion throughout is another not-to-be-overlooked plus. Mraz's "Picturesque" is handled by just a trio, with Cables and Varela presenting the convoluted theme and its boppish bridge that recalls Herbie Nichols. Varela's imposing solo exhibits his poise and inventiveness, and Cables' spot swings animatedly. Tasty trades with Hart bring us back to the formidable theme. "Where the Wild Things Are" is named for Varela's favorite childhood book, and begins with a brooding free-form interlude before Richardson's alto announces the herky-jerky theme. Cables' solo plunges full-speed ahead, Richardson's simmers intensely, and Varela's is characteristically lyrical. Hart's slashing attack up to this point evolves after the reprise into a rambunctious declaration over Varela's vamp.