It isn't often that a recording debut stands as one of the strongest CDs of the year, but that's unmistakably the case with Chicago drummer Dana Hall's newly released "Into the Light" (Origin Records).
Hall, who also teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has appeared prolifically on CDs of other artists, but he makes his boldest statement to date in his recording bow as bandleader. Fronting an all-star quintet, the drummer provides every bit of the hard-driving rhythm and atmospheric color that listeners have come to expect from him. But there's much more here, as well, including ingenious original compositions and an uncommonly compelling ensemble sound.
Not that it's easy to misfire when you're joined by trumpeter Terell Stafford, reedist Tim Warfield Jr., keyboardist Bruce Barth and bassist Rodney Whitaker, each an accomplished soloist in his own right. But while Hall has led this band in strong live performances at the Green Mill, those sets have not achieved quite the degree of technical control, tonal polish and expressive intensity that radiates from virtually every track of "Into the Light."
The intellectual weight and rhythmic swagger of Hall's original tunes explain a great deal of the appeal of this disc. Anyone who can pen a melodic hook as memorable as "Conversion Song" and a composition as lyrically inspired and harmonically distinctive as "Orchids" clearly knows what he's doing.
If Hall and colleagues convey explosive energy and vividly synthesized sonic effects in the title track, they prove equally capable of light-and-lithe phrase making in Hall's "The Path to Love." Each tune shows Hall's fingerprints, yet no two sound alike.
Moreover, one has to be impressed by how fervently these musicians play for Hall. There are no throwaway solos here, no casual vamping while one instrumentalist or another takes a solo. Instead, these artists make the most of every phrase, meanwhile producing a tautly conceived ensemble sound.
In all, "Into the Light" represents an important artistic leap for Hall, who has set a high standard for himself for future releases.