4 1/2 STARS
It's amazing what can happen when you take a tight-knit, deep-dish duo reflective of Chicago's jazz riches, add one of the world's most dexterous and expressive vibraphonists, and sweeten the deal with a grooving up-and-comer. Charts are mapped over uncharted territories, musical assuredness carries the day in uncertain realms, and surprises await around every well-constructed corner. This is not-so-simply a beautiful case of known parts moving toward parts unknown.
Guitarist John McLean and bassist Clark Sommers have long been fixtures on the Windy City scene, each has established a presence and personality apart from the other, and together they've come to be known as an empathetic team, mostly through their work with vocalist Kurt Elling. They exhibit a strong sonic chemistry that's above and beyond in every sense. While playing a gig on their home turf, these two joined forces with vibes master Joe Locke. It was an additive process with a predictably positive outcome, serving as the impetus for this session. That trio then became a quartet, with dynamic drummer Xavier Breaker rounding out the group, and everything fell into place for this all-embracing album.
Parts Unknown arrives with a modernist slant, courtesy of Locke's dynamic "Blondie Roundabout," but it departs with a bucolic sense of satisfaction reflected by McLean's acoustic presentation on his own "Last Call." In between those points and stylistic poles, this quartet touches on myriad ideals while using a rich and colorful palette to paint one impressive canvas after another. "Labor Day" is an upbeat and positive offering that rolls along while giving Locke, McLean, and Breaker some space to shine; "Time Window" uses McLean's reflective atmospherics as a gateway to beauty, ushering in peaceful tidings; the title track is a metrically intriguing offering with hints of the blues in the underbrush, a dynamic display ripe for ripping and roaring over; Sommers' arrangement of Mal Waldron's "All Alone" uses Breaker's Nate Smith-esque drum 'n' bass grooves as a backdrop for melodic expressions; and "Farther From That" moves with a seductive, low-key glow.
In the midst of these varied offerings, Locke delivers one of his most gorgeous compositions to date. "Safe And Sound (At The Edge Of The Milky Way)," a clear album highlight on a playlist full of high points, is every bit the starry scenario that the title implies. Each and every glistening and glimmering thought seems to converge and catenate, forming a gorgeous constellation of sound and space. It's a breathtaking performance of a song that's bound to become a Locke staple in the future.
While McLean and Sommers don't have any visibility problems in the jazz world, Parts Unknown is still likely to give them a boost in that department. It's a date that highlights what both men are all about while also demonstrating their mutability. Hopefully they can reunite with Locke and Breaker in the future, as this is certainly a sequel-worthy set.