Perhaps the one thing necessary for any fine jazz ensemble is chemistry. Of course musical talent is essential, but a talented instrumentalist that doesn’t buy into the ensemble’s vision, a player more concerned with himself than the group, can often be a destructive force. When you’ve got an ensemble that works, adding a new voice, no matter how fine a musician, you are taking a calculated risk. What will that new voice do to the group’s demonstrated chemistry?
Acclaimed young guitarist Jake Hertzog’s trio, with bassist Harvie S and drummer Victor Jones, has that necessary chemistry. Their three album’s—Chromatosphere (2009), Patterns (2010), Evolution (2011)—have made that clear. So when their new album, Throwback, comes out and the trio has become a quartet, you have to question why Hertzog would mess with a good thing. Even when the added voice is a recognized all-star, even when that voice is trumpeter Randy Brecker, you have to wonder.
Turns out there’s no need to worry. Brecker, Hertzog, Harvie S, and Jones play like they’ve been working together for years. Hertzog knows what he wants from Brecker, and Brecker delivers. As Hertzog explains in the liner notes, “I wanted him to be almost more like the lead singer in a rock band than a trumpet player, like Bono in U2, Kurt Cobain in Nirvana, Eddie Vedder in Pearl Jam, or Chris Cornell in Soundgarden. So I arranged it so he could just kind of float above and do whatever and it would sound great as long as the rhythm section is cooking.”
Well, the rhythm section was cooking alright, and Brecker was not only floating, he was flying. Throwback is a set of some of the finest jazz you’re likely to hear this year. Working on six of the nine Hertzog original compositions that make up the album (three tunes are trio numbers), the quartet produces a dynamic sound filled with power. It is a big sound, intense and energetic. Brecker soars whenever he plays, from the fast-paced “Cleared to Fly” and the almost demonic “Entropy” with its Twilight Zone riffs, through the title song which ends the album on a high. And when Hertzog and Brecker stage a battle of licks in “Entropy,” it is clearly a throwback to older traditions. There is also some eloquent haunting solo work in “Sending Home.”
The trio’s three tracks offer something of a respite. “Is It Summer” and the lyrical “First to Rise” offer a more laid-back vibe, but the team takes off on “Hands On,” a tune Hertzog calls “drunken Thelonious Monk.”
If adding a voice to an established ensemble is a risk, in this case it was a risk worth taking.