By Peter Margasak | Published August 2019
Greg Ward and Jason Stein have made themselves integral parts of Chicago’s jazz and improvised music community, each moving easily between swing-based expression and free exploration. Alto saxophonist Ward has a strong traditional sweep, imbuing his soulful tone with an ineffable blues cry, while bass clarinetist Stein harnesses his unwieldy axe to straddle post-bop lyricism and rough-hewn searching. They’ve worked together in drummer Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone project, developing a robust bond and telepathic rapport, and their mutual love for Chicago post-bop sparkles in this superb new quartet.
The indelibility of the themes they composed for Nature Work is matched by their savvy in choosing a rhythm section: Bassist Eric Revis is a muscular force that both anchors and propels the grooves, while drummer Jim Black masterfully pushes and pulls against them, injecting his off-kilter time in a way that lends an irresistible tension to a familiar sound. The model is established right out of the gate with Ward’s “The Shiver,” lurching from a nervy unison horn theme over a galloping rhythm into a slashing swing riff that recalls the brawny grit of late-1950s Chicago post-bop.
Chattering, pointillistic horns and unstable bass and drums coalesce into a nifty churn two minutes into “Porch Time,” while the chamber-like fragments that open “Opter Fopter” congeal into a floating West Coast cool. Those shifts in feeling complement other sources of tension on the record, all of which add up to one of the year’s most satisfying and electrifying releases—a session rooted in tradition and utterly unhindered by it.
Nature Work: The Shiver; Hem The Jewels; Porch Time; Zenith; Opter Fopter; Cryptic Ripple; Tah Dazzle; South Hempstead; Rise. (59:20)
Personnel: Jason Stein, bass clarinet; Greg Ward, alto saxophone; Eric Revis, bass; Jim Black, drums.