Measuring instrumental jazz isn't, on reflection, that different a task from considering vocal jazz. Again, the crux is being convinced by it all, and that's as subjective as it is arguable and, ideally, defensible.
I like Big Neighborhood's Neighbors
(Origin). It is purposeful, unusual, innovative jazz of a variety that isn't going to scare anybody - for reasons good and bad, that seems, certainly, often to be a measure of jazz releases. Big Neighborhood is distinguished by fine playing, impressive writing, and great assurance - if the acolytes believe, and their talents bear out the creed, belief is so much easier for us who listen in.
With one exception, the pieces are all by guitarist David White (back in Seattle after 18 years in New York) or bassist Doug Miller. Both pen convincing, catchy numbers, and the arrangements and solos project a sense of organization that on inspection is in reality just appropriate and varied pacing and mood. Several genres of music inform the jazz, but all are fully integrated; as a result, the output is just... well, jazz.
On drums Phil Parisot is engaged and engaging throughout; he takes up the challenges of the often complex counts with apparent ease.
Miller has a tone as warm as a friendly city block, and as individual as a compel?ling neighbor.
White's guitar is all mood, no flash, and so is Chris Fagan's alto. He contributes plenty of swing and color, and a clear, keening tone.
Who is he? He was schooled in California by the clarinet great John Carter and the trumpeter Bobby Bradford, and doesn't fail that fortunate pedigree. It is, after all, one that would assure any attentive student a solid blend of tradition - in the sense of looking back - and tradition in the sense of moving ahead.
In New York, from 1986, Fagan studied further with David Murray. He released his debut album, Lost Bohemia (Open Minds) in 1992, with Reggie Workman on bass, Andrew Cyrille on drums, and Bobby Bradford on trumpet. Whoa!
His links to the Northwest began in earnest with his second, 1997 album, Signs of Life, which featured two residents of the city who have strong Seattle ties, bassist Chuck Bergeron and drummer Brian Kirk, along with longtime Seattle piano standout John Hansen.
Biography aside, it's his frank, unflashy honest playing that appeals.
You have to like, by the way, a jazz album with a tune dedicated to Frank Zappa that quotes 20th-century com?poser Paul Hindemith. In keeping with that shout-out, the album's tracks feature plenty of complex, but never obtuse, writing. It is, for example, often intricate and metrically varied, and yet still thoroughly thought- and mood-provoking rather than technically dazzling. Most impressive is the assurance with which the quartet performs music that, in lesser hands, might bog down in technicalities, but here is, as the pieces demand, warm, buoyant, of varied and appropriate humor...
Certainly this ranks as one of the better releases from Seattle ranks in recent years.