By Brian Zimmerman | Published March 2015
Drummer-led projects are a balancing act, a careful give-and-take between style and support. Too much flair and the drums become overbearing; too little and they fade into the background. Art Blakey and Max Roach knew how to establish the perfect equilibrium, and with The Undying Spirit, drummer E.J. Strickland finds a similar sweet spot. He plays with just enough solidity to provide his bandmates with a strong foundation, and just enough zest make the whole endeavor shimmer. It helps that Strickland assembled a superbly talented group to join him. Longtime members Jaleel Shaw on alto saxophone, Luis Perdomo on piano and brother Marcus Strickland on tenor and soprano sax bring boundless energy to this project, and bassist Linda Oh makes a phenomenal addition. Their chemistry is undeniable, but each player exhibits fireworks on their own: Oh with her soulful bass solo on “Ballad For All Mankind,” Perdomo with his angular piano work on “Ride” and Shaw and Marcus with their intertwining motifs on “Bomba For Leel And Max.” Best of all is when the drummer flexes his solo chops: His flights on Cedar Walton’s “Hindsight” and the original composition “A Dance For Mojo’s Return” are marvels of technique and self-expression. Strickland, who composed all but one of the 10 tracks, stated that his goal for this project was to create an album that would be “uplifting to the listener.” That goal was definitely accomplished. The Undying Spirit positively glows, and its success comes largely from the leader’s ability to inspire the best in his fellow musicians. Sure, his bandmates’ performances are illuminating, but it’s Strickland who’s shining the light.