The first thing that is usually said about Jane Ira Bloom is that she is the rare jazz saxophonist who plays the soprano sax…exclusively. With so many prominent forebears who made made memorable music on the straight horn ranging from John Coltrane to Dave Liebman, it wouldn't seem to be that big of a deal, but to listen to Bloom play it is to know how the instrument is really meant to be played.
Bloom is the owner of a playing style that is pretty, lyrical and full of cadence; attributes which don't leave her when it's time to play "out." Only the late legend Steve Lacy matched her in the uniqueness of playing style on this apparatus.
Mental Weather is a return to the label that published her first LP Second Wind way back in 1980. During the eleven intervening albums, Bloom has consistently brought forth her fondness for classic bop and a yearning for avant garde side by side and has been consistently successful practicing both art forms.
Her performances are never in question on her albums, and this one is no exception. What makes this album a tad different from her other releases is that she pulls together unique elements of many of her prior offerings: the ballads and free spirit dichotomy of The Nearness and The Red Quartet, the subtle blending in of electronics of Art & Aviation and the quiet, introspective saxophone/piano duets of As One.
Add to all that her continued growth as a composer, however, and Mental Weather even surpasses those previous works that Bloom heavily refers back to.
The composer she recollects most is the late, underappreciated Don Grolnick, who had a way with creating lines that performed somersaults but always seemed to land on their feet. Other times, he devised insistent modal figures that gave players plenty of room to improvise while sounding tuneful. "Ready For Anything," which features some whimsical cymbal work by drummer Matt Wilson, exemplifies that style. The pianist Dawn Clement, bassist Mark Helias (using a bow), as well as Bloom herself make good use of the opportunities presented by the tune.
The loping, seven-note "Luminous Bridges" is another Grolnick-esque tune on which Wilson build up intensity ever so gradually until the theme is abruptly slowed down and softened in the coda.
"Electrochemistry" is an impish, free-flowing vehicle for Bloom's electronically-modified soprano and shows off her ability to use technology to enhance — not bring down — the music's integrity. She and Clement do an amazing unison run that takes the song out cleanly before the four minute mark.
The graceful "A More Beautiful Question" is performed with a soprano-piano-bass format with wistful lines coyly unfolding like a Carla Bley piece. Clement's rapport with Bloom is on par with the master Fred Hersch's, whom Bloom had used so effectively as her piano foil on albums past.
Elsewhere, Bloom continues to mix it up. “Multiple Choice” is advanced bop that's simultaneously complex and catchy. "Meantal Weather" is an excursion into Ornette Coleman territory with a harmolodic melody navigating skillfully through a 5/4 beat. "Cello On The Inside" is a tender, Wayne Shorter type ballad played virtually as a duet with Clement, with Helias and Wilson keeping low profiles.
The closing "First Thoughts/This Nearly Was Mine" is a solo performance by Bloom, who remains melodic and plays thoughtfully throughout. It illuminates her ability to reign in her talents enough in order to remain listenable despite her adventurous side.
The CD also contains a nifty little bonus I haven't seen anywhere else: a single MP3 file that contains the music of the CD as an unbroken stream to simulate how Bloom and her group performs it in concert.
Twenty-eight years after her first album as a leader, Jane Ira Bloom has produced what may be her crowning achievement. If you're curious about the music of this unjustly overlooked maestro of soprano saxophone and expressive jazz, the place to start is at the present. Mental Weather will tell you most everything you need to know about what is great about Bloom.
photo by Matthew Sussman (no, not that Matthew Sussman)