Chicago guitarist John Moulder has proven himself as versatile as he is virtuosic. He's served as producer on a handful of his own albums, and each has a strikingly different theme, purpose and array of musicians. Despite that, Moulder almost always inclines toward big picture concepts — something you could reasonably expect, given that he's spent much of his career holding a "day gig" as a Catholic minister.
Earthbound Tales of Soul and Spirit
does the best job yet of meeting these expectations. As the title suggests, the music — written on commission for a 2014 outdoor concert in downtown Chicago's Millennium Park, which took place the day after the recording — aims for a certain gravitas. The ensemble, starring saxophonist Donny McCaslin, proves more than capable of finding the mark but also investing it with power and swing. McCaslin's solos have a well-deserved reputation for vertiginous intensity and unflagging momentum, and these assets allow him to command the album's longest track, "Ruby's Way, Part 2." By contrast, trumpeter Marquis Hill — who would win the Thelonious Monk competition a few months after this recording — lets his lines breathe with a more spacious but no less fervent approach.
On piano, Jim Trompeter finds a balance between glitter and gold. Three Chicago stalwarts —Larry Gray, Eric Hochberg and Steve Rodby —share the bass chair, while veteran drummer Paul Wertico alternates with the impressive young Xavier Breaker.
The title track introduces the disc with a soaring melody. Characteristically, Moulder hands most of it over to the horns, emerging with a fusion-spawned electric solo only toward song's end. On "Journey to the East," a three-part suite, Moulder's acoustic guitar is buoyed by the tablas of percussionist Kalyan Pathak and alludes to concepts of Eastern spirituality. Finally, Moulder closes the set with "Farther Reaches," a tune propelled by a mid tempo lope a la McCoy Tyner. It fittingly encapsulates the syncretic blend of cosmic aspiration and earthly passion at the core of this music.