Pianist/composer Ben Markley has enough jazz pedigree to draw interest from jazz fans on an international level. After all, he has performed with such notables as Brian Lynch, Terell Stafford, and Eddie Henderson. His work on the jazz scene in Denver is well regarded, as is his work as Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, not what one would call a hotbed of jazz music.
It was Markley's most recent recording Clockwise: The Music of Cedar Walton (OA2, 2017) that began to uncover his considerable prowess to the jazz public, in the form of a rousing big-band tribute to the legendary pianist. On his latest recording Basic Economy (OA2, 2018), Markley scales down to a quartet featuring eclectic alto saxophonist, Greg Osby. The album features seven Markley compositions, and one from Osby.
Markley states that he wrote the music for this recording with Osby in mind, celebrating their four-year musical relationship. The opener, "FTG" states emphatically out of the gate, that this is indeed the directive flow of the album. Osby, whose performance credits include Andrew Hill, Jack DeJohnette, and the M-Base Collective, accepts the challenge in a spirited way, demonstrating the fluid rapport he and Markley share.
The title track brings out the Monk in Markley, expressed in a blues-tinged leap of faith, supported seemingly effortlessly by the fine rhythm section of bassist Evan Gregor, and drummer Dru Heller. Markley's solo encapsulates what we have heard in a total sense from him the length of his career. His playing is purely post-bop, rooted deeply in the blues aesthetic. While each phrase seems to express this dedication to jazz tradition, he is hardly constrained by it, pushing the standards of harmony and melodic improvisation beyond perceived practical limits.
"Mind Fire" is a meandering vehicle in 3, a perfect canvas for Osby to demonstrate his diverse approach that blends straight-ahead ferocity with free-jazz sensitivity. Heller's fervent intricacies keep the flames alive in this 4-way adventure that seems at times to drift into obscurity, only to right itself and push forward relentlessly.
"Road to Ace" brings out the egalitarian nature of the band, featuring a mantra-like foundation for inspired soloing from Markley and Osby. Heller's metered pulse leads to a brilliant motivic solo from Markley that builds in intensity. Osby follows with what is perceivably his finest work on the record. The feel is somewhat alt-rock, though the energetic, uplifting feel is brought to a halt with a somewhat awkward fade-out ending.
Basic Economy is an exercise in post-bop modernism; it certainly doesn't claim any new territory or cross any established creative parameters. It is a fun ride featuring two musicians in Markley and Osby who have found a unique and inseparable connection that hopefully is renewed time and time again.